John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China

Subjectively (or maybe not), It seems as if getting to this particular review has been a really long time coming. When Filmwerk’s John Carpenter season of retrospectives was announced, this was the film I thought of wanting to write about first. I’m not sure why I felt inclined to leave the likes of Halloween, Escape From New York and The Thing to other keen reviewers, as I would site all of those movies as hugely significant in my life. However, I just felt compelled to avoid them, while at the same time very very energised and motivated to write instead about some of the other films in Carpenter’s back catalogue that are most meaningful to me ‘outside’ of the big, bigger and biggest titles.
Of the three I chose to do, Big Trouble in Little China (BTILC) is in many ways the most significant. Some of this is no doubt a timing thing. I was fifteen (a good movie discovering age) when the movie hit the theatres. But somehow (and listening to Carpenter’s commentary with Kurt Russell on the DVD, I think I know why), I bloody missed it didn’t I.
I went to the pictures quite regularly with my father in those days and am certain that had the movie been better promoted, we would have gone to see it. I can honestly say I don’t recall any promo for it, but y’know it was a long time ago, and at fifteen I also had the raging hormones of yoof messing with my noggin. Alas, for whatever reason; it wasn’t to be a big screen event for me. Instead, it would be through significant, widespread instances of its awesome trailer popping up on lots of other video rentals that year, that my awareness and immediate need to see it became all consuming.
I was already well into Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and other Hong Kong martial arts movies, and the year before BTILC came out, there was Berry Gordy’s hip hop Kung Fu movie ‘The Last Dragon’ which was just so damn cool (have you got the ‘glow’?). I had also been (like just about every kid I knew) nuts a few years earlier about TV shows like ‘The Water Margin’, Kung Fu and especially the completely bonkers ‘Monkey’. Given this background and interest in martial arts and cinematic eastern mysticism; the trailer for BTILC completely rocked from the first frame and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the movie proper when it appeared on video.
Talk about your repeat rental movies! I remember being fined quite a lot for just not bringing the bloody tape back!!

I’ve said this before, but it’s true every time; as this is a retrospective; I’ll assume that most folks reading it have seen the movie at least once. If not, why not?! It’s a classic.

So how to ‘quickly’ sum up the story…ok, It’s about….. hmmm wait a minute, it’s sort of a martial arts…. errr… chop socky, no no, it’s an action movie…..
Ok so it’s about a trucker….
No it’s about Chinese mysticism and ghosts…
It’s a comedy, with monsters…
ah bloody hell ! What is it then?
Jeez, ah ok deep breath… it’s the story of an overconfident, but massively under-capable truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) who gets drawn into helping his Chinese friend Wang (Dennis Dunn) rescue his green eyed fiancée Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) from David Lo Pan (James Hong), a two thousand year old, 8 foot high non corporeal sorcerer who; while he’s not fronting the Chinatown criminal underworld; needs her blood to help break his ghostly curse and become flesh again. It’s not clear what Lo Pan’s ultimate plan for his newly corporeal form is, and seeing as how once successfully achieved, it leads directly to death by knife in the forehead; I guess we’ll never know. He’s completely bonkers though, that’s for certain.
Lo Pan is surrounded by a host of weird and wonderful creatures and cohorts, the most striking of which are the seemingly invincible 3 Storms; these guys are nuts, have really quite the hugest hats you’ve ever seen. I mean, one of them (Thunder) eventually commits suicide (after witnessing said knifing incident), by straining so hard he inflates and just pops, pebble-dashing the general area with gloopy body chunks.
Jack and Wang are aided by Chinatown lawyer Gracie Law (the completely delectable Kim Cattrall), and Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a local tour bus driver (who is also a powerful and apparently long lived sorcerer). They are confronted by all manner of bizarre perils including the ‘hell of the upside down sinners’ as well as giant sewer dragons and a floating multi-eyeballed squidgyball monster that telepathically communicates with Lo Pan (but everyone has one of those!).
All this eventually culminates in a battle between the forces of good, led by Egg, Jack and Wang, lined up against the evil horde, as Lo Pan tries to marry Miao Yin and become flesh.
Me neither, but it seems a lot of studio folks were.
To be fair; Carpenter was miles ahead of the curve and had served up such an unusual and subversive blend with this movie; I can see how the poor marketing bods at Fox at that time would have a nightmare pitching how exactly to promote it.
They didn’t get it at all, and neither did the studio execs.

And ultimately neither did cinema audiences. Damn shame too because financially the movie really bombed in the theatres, not even breaking even. It received at best, a mixed critical reaction (like I said, people just didn’t get it). It also caused John Carpenter to re-evaluate life as a big studio director.
Weirdly, later that year Eddie Murphy’s vaguely similar ‘The Golden Child’ which admittedly I also really liked and (like most of his 80’s movies) was eminently quotable, made gajillions of dollars, go figure?!

Watching Big Trouble In Little China is always a pleasure and even now, re-watching my standard def DVD copy; there is just nothing stale about it….well maybe Carpenters ‘on trend’ mid 80’s electro end theme song is a little curly round the edges, but the movie is superb.

Right from the off, it’s a crazy scenario. Here we have a $25m American studio picture that had very few White Americans in it, and that also featured (in Carpenter’s own words), the “sidekick who thinks he’s the hero” in Jack Burton. The film’s large Asian cast and Dunn’s confident and capable ‘Wang’ are all very atypical of a Hollywood still hanging on to the remnants of ‘Charlie Chan’ and ‘Kane’ casting practices  (i.e. non-Asians playing Asian roles), or ‘Yellow Peril’ Fu Manchu stereotyping. In BTILC you had people good and bad, heroic and nefarious, all Asian, with their ethnicity not having any bearing on their disposition at all.
Kurt Russell has to be given maximum kudos for jumping in to the role of Jack Burton with absolutely no fear, and no ego; giving it 110% with seemingly no thought or worry about looking like a pillock (which he often does). It’s an awesome spectacle, and Russell is hilarious in a genuine way that few if any of his contemporaries could have managed. Burton is a constant screw up, meaning well but lacking the tools to be effective. Taking command but never being ‘in’ command, he’s all bluster and overconfident, clumsy muscle and knock-kneed machismo. At the same time, and as the Yang to Jack’s Ying is the diminutive Wang, who is highly skilled, super-effective and is the movie’s actual honest to goodness ‘can do’ hero. It’s magical, and both Jack and Wang play their reversed roles without fully realising that this is indeed the case. It’s a great dynamic.
It’s a lovely looking movie too, and special mention must go to the costuming and set design of Lo Pan’s inner sanctum which is very effective.
Kim Cattrall was a teen crush of mine, and I loved her in this. She’s so funny too, just naturally fun and funny…..and a sex pot. James Hong’s Lo Pan is a fantastically, joyously, hilariously evil baddie, and apart from maybe Russell, gets all the best lines.

I really don’t ‘get’ why some of Carpenter’s best movies only seem to find their audiences later on video and now DVD. Where were these folks when the movie was in the theatres? I mentioned earlier that I didn’t get to see BTILC that way either, but this was because of not knowing about it rather than a lack of enthusiasm. It’s fair to say that both ‘The Thing’ and ‘Big Trouble’ got hit very hard on their theatre runs by all conquering mega-hit movies (E.T. and Aliens respectively), but one can’t deny that folks just didn’t connect with them anyway, and somehow Carpenter has been either ahead of the curve or shy of the mark depending on how you look at it.
I absolutely dug Big Trouble in Little China right from that first trailer, and yet again (in the same way as with Starman previously), friends I have mentioned this review to, have all come out with a resounding “Oh yeah, love that movie!” or other words to that effect. It really resonated with kids of my generation who all seem to have discovered it on video. Whoever was responsible for getting the trailer on so many other video releases deserves a bloody medal.
When sitting down to watch it for the purposes of the retrospective; my wife joined me and having never seen it (??!!) I was interested in her unique opinion. Now to be fair, it was late and the poor girl is very pregnant so she only managed about the first forty minutes before having to retire to the boudoir, but in that initial forty minutes she did ask me what the hell was going on more than once. There was a lot of “Who’s that guy?” and “What did she say?” and “Why do those guys have enormous hats on?” – Ok I’m kidding with the last one, but you get the idea. There’s not a lot of preamble before there’s Chinese gangs killing each-other and big hat wearing dudes riding lightning bolts on some slightly dodgy looking backstreet alley sets. Oh yes, and an 8 foot Sorcerer with light coming out of his mouth and eyes, getting mown down by a big rig. It’s pretty full on very quickly, but she was at least willing to give it another go some time, so the jury’s out as to whether she will either ‘get’ or ‘enjoy’ what the movie offers others in spades.

It’s really obvious from the key player’s performances that they all ‘got’ the joke, and are revelling in it, and this helps make the movie so much fun to watch again and again. Unlike some of the other major Carpenter movies reviewed so far (even my other two contributions); BTILC is the one (along with The Thing), that has had the most consistent and continuing shelf-life.
My favourite line? Well its gotta be the moment Jack opens the group’s escape route door only to find about a dozen snarling angry Lo Pan warriors behind it.
After closing (and bolting) the door again, he turns to his friends and delivers the perfectly timed line:

“We may be trapped!”

It don’t get better than that boys and girls.
Amazingly when I think about it, this was the last Carpenter movie to really hit my radar hard until Escape From L.A. was announced in the nineties, and even then, I had very mixed feelings about that one.
I’ll be very interested in the remaining movie retrospectives coming up on Filmwerk, it’s been a total pleasure.
“It’s all in the reflexes!”

Ben Pegley

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