I was scrolling though the Netflix on demand movies wondering what would be family appropriate and was happy to see the Big Trouble in Little China was available for the watching. I remember this film from the 80’s and have always liked it. Given that the movie is now considered a “cult classic” I feel vindicated that my perception of the film has some wider-spread acceptance than the Box Office numbers the movie failed to generate.
Few works of ’80s commercial cinema still seem as fresh as John Carpenter’s ninth feature, a rowdy, rocking hunk of fun that both fulfils and subverts many ideals of action filmmaking. Big Trouble has been described as ahead of its time, in that it anticipated, and still outclasses, the great wave of Asian-Hollywood fusion flicks that took over action cinema from the mid ’90s on, represented by The Matrix, Kill Bill, the American starring vehicles of Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat and Jet Li, and sundry others martial-arts-infused movies. But in other, fundamental ways, it’s still unique. It was, in its own moment, a painful flop that effectively ended Carpenter’s rise up the rungs of Hollywood, in spite of it being his most stylistically confident and technically accomplished film; his next work, Prince of Darkness (1987), was a virtual bargain-basement affair. The reasons for Big Trouble’s failure are now practically lost in the mist of time, but its cult status today is undeniable and entirely deserved.
Big Trouble’s cheeky take on the genre template commences with the fact that Jack Burton, the hero Kurt Russell plays, isn’t really the hero at all. He’s a tough-talking truck driver, fond of broadcasting his personal mythology over the CB radio and coming on like John Wayne’s bastard son, but he’s not too far from the kinds of character Bob Hope and Don Adams played, a posturing clot with occasional moments of competence—a poke in the eye for what was then the cult of greased-up machismo represented by Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Jack is friend and veritable sidekick to Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), whose physical prowess as a brilliant martial artist and motivation to snatch back his true love from the forces of evil clearly mark him as the real protagonist.
Carpenter and Russell had previously worked together on the telemovie Elvis (1979), Escape from New York (1981)(also reviewed here), and The Thing, but Big Trouble was the true high point of that collaboration, at least in terms of the director’s intent and the actor’s capacities meshing. Few other young male movie stars have ever betrayed such a willingness to send themselves up as Russell did here. For example, Burton answers the question “Are you ready?” when venturing into any enemy lair with a swaggering “I was born ready!” Once there, however, he drops weapons, can’t work out how to let go of an opponent he’s holding prone, and looks momentarily shocked when he shoots someone, giving away his essential lack of experience as a tough guy.
Another thing that marked Carpenter out as a filmmaker, but which made him seem increasingly out of place in modern Hollywood, is his care in evoking a sense of milieu and situating his heroes as a part of an ordinary world. Often, they’re blue collar dudes and ladies, included by accident in greater machinations. Big Trouble commences with an opening that gives a fine sense of Burton as both a bit of a blowhard, ranting on the radio before cramming a giant hoagie in his mouth, but also as a cool guy. After delivering a load of produce to a market in San Francisco, he sits down to gamble with the mostly Asian porters and buyers, including his old friend Wang Chi, a self-made restaurateur. Carpenter doesn’t need a word of dialogue to show us who Burton, Wang, and the rest are: normal people doing real things and relaxing in a normal way, the sort of things nobody does in modern action blockbusters except in the most laboriously signposted fashions. The only remarkable moment is a challenge between Wang and Jack. Wang, who’s just lost all the money he’d saved up for a lavish welcome back from China for his fiancée, bets Jack double or nothing he can split a beer bottle in half with a meat cleaver. He fails, and Jack catches the bottle, which shoots across the table at him, proving he has brilliant reflexes. That’s a classic piece of establishing a hero’s gifts, but it’s a promise the film deliberately, hilariously delays fulfilling.
Jack recompenses Wang by taking him to pick up said fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), from the airport, where Jack eyes Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), a civil rights lawyer. She’s trying to shepherd immigrant Tara (Min Luong) safely past a waiting coterie of thugs from a Chinatown street gang on the lookout for girls to kidnap and force into prostitution. When the goons snatch Tara, Jack confronts them, only to be quickly toppled; the thugs take Miao Yin instead. Jack and Wang chase them to Chinatown, where they’re caught in the middle of a battle between the evil Wing Kong triad, and the good-guy Chang Sing gang, who are having the funeral procession for a leader and are ambushed by their enemies. The Chang Sing’s retaliation proves effective until the intervention of the Three Storms—Thunder (Carter Wong), Lightning (James Pax), and Rain (Peter Kwong)—bizarre beings that seem to have supernatural powers. The Storms slaughter the Chang Sings where they stand. When Jack tries to escape this melee by driving his truck through it, he seems to run down a tall, regally dressed man whom Wang thinks might be David Lo Pan (James Hong), the legendary head of the Wing Kong. Lo Pan seems unhurt by Jack’s truck, and rays of blinding light shoot from his eyes and mouth.
Jack soon learns that he and Wang have stumbled into the middle of a metaphysical battle of good and evil. Working with Gracie, whose knowledge of Chinatown’s criminal dealings is great, Jack infiltrates the White Tiger, a brothel where sex slaves are bought and sold, to find Miao Yin. Unfortunately, she’s snatched away by the Three Storms and taken to the underground lair of Lo Pan. He proves to be a 2,000-year-old soldier and magician, cursed by the gods for his offences, who is really a fleshless spirit desperately in search of a girl with green eyes he can marry to end his curse. Miao Yin fits the bill. Jack and Wang’s efforts to find her in Lo Pan’s headquarters prove a comic disaster until they manage to escape and free a number of captive women. But Gracie is left in the hands of Lo Pan and when he proves that both she and Miao Yin can survive the rituals for testing his brides, he plans to marry both, sacrificing one and keeping the other to be his companion as he conquers the universe. Wang and Jack are aided in their quest by Gracie’s journalist friend Margo Lane (Kate Burton), Wang’s debonair maitre d’ Eddie (Donald Li), the Chang Sings, and general-purpose sorcerer and tour guide Egg Shen (Victor Wong).
The quality of Big Trouble that sets it apart from many similar ’80s films and makes it tantalizingly hard to describe is the fluent ease with which it shifts between genres and tones: a giddy succession of swerves from slapstick to melodrama; Howard Hawksian verbal byplay; Tsui Hark wire-fu shenanigans; comic book hoot; resonant, sexually and mystically mysterious epic. Carpenter’s shift into action-oriented fare after mostly making horror movies, in which control of mood, atmosphere, and story progression are key assets, saw him assay Big Trouble with a contiguous grace that eludes most physically dynamic movies where a motion rush becomes paramount. Big Trouble’s atmosphere is tangible, as the heroes perform the gleeful boyish fantasy of taking a turn down just the right side street and being plunged into an adventure.
Under the surface effervescence, another strength of Big Trouble is that unlike most subsequent fantasy and East-West fusions, Carpenter captures, and even builds upon, the mystical weirdness that infuses much wuxia filmmaking. This is clear in images like Lo Pan transforming from his flaccid old guise into young ghost and passing through walls, and when Jack and the Chang Sing warriors follow Egg Shen down a fire pole into a subterranean shadow world where monsters lurk and the “black blood of the Earth” flows. The references to Chinese mythology alternate wryness with wistful seriousness, and Carpenter’s music score communicates a spacey, almost haunting underpinning to the adventure – the fact that many Hong Kong films of the same period sported synthesizer-dominated scores like Carpenter’s increases the likeness.
James Hong as Lo Pan is an evergreen surprise. Generally known for playing gaunt, cagey ciphers, a la his role as the guardian of dark secrets in Chinatown, Hong presents Lo Pan as alternately the dirtiest of old men when he’s in his corporeal shell of withered leathery flesh, swearing and teasing Gracie with insidious delight, and a weirdly beautiful supernatural master in his classical garb and make-up, appealing to the unconscious Miao Yin with poetic cadence and quivering with frustrated desire. Such flourishes makes Lo Pan a far deeper kind of villain than the usual run, and Hong’s intuitively perfect performance struck such a deep chord with the actor that he directed a film, The Vineyard (1989), that reiterates aspects of this film’s plot. Lo Pan gets his comeuppance, eventually, but that’s really the throwaway end to a grandiose fight. Carpenter even makes fun of the usually epic deaths of supernatural villains by having Lo Pan succumb to the simplest of implements, with his great collection of plaster buddhas spontaneously collapsing like dominos, as if the gods are marking the passing of a great if evil force. Carpenter’s filming of the preceding fight is a source of constant delight to me, with a comic-book-like clarity of action displayed in the way Carpenter offers frames that are cut in half by swords or crisscrossed by battling opponents swooping from one edge to the other. Such stylistic rigor, light years away from the happenstance gibberish seen in so many recent action films, gives a sense of the physical space, combined with the rapidity of the editing and the dynamism of the stuntmen, in what is still a master class for this sort of thing. Whatever Big Trouble’s failures as a revenue earner, it was a big triumph as entertainment, and I still love it.