Blast from the Past: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Little China

“They told Jack Burton to go to hell…and that’s exactly where he’s going!”

Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, Kim Catrall, Victor Wong and James Hong

While in San Francisco on business, trucker Jack Burton (Russell) meets up with friends in Chinatown and ends up driving his friend Wang Chi (Dun) to the airport to collect his fiancee Miao Yin (Suzee Pai). From there, the two stumble into a gang kidnapping, which in turn leads them into a rumble interrupted by the arrival of ‘the Three Storms’, a trio of supernatural warriors. Aptly named lawyer Gracie Law (Catrall) points them to the Wing Kong triad and its reclusive boss David Lo Pan (Hong). After that, it’s all madcap schemes and daring rescues as tour bus driver Egg Shen (Wong) musters the forces of good for a confrontation against the terrible powers of Lo Pan.

What’s wrong with it?

There is no denying that Big Trouble in Little China has aged poorly. The effects were created on a shoestring at the time, and the otherworldly glow created by what are obviously neon strip lights was never that impressive, but more than that, the film traded heavily on the fact that the Chinese mystical martial arts genre was something entirely new. Now that western cinema audiences are much more familiar with that sort of film, it lacks its novelty value.

Also suffering from that shift in audience awareness is Jack Burton. Once a brilliant satire on the blunt force western action hero, to modern audiences he is a self-evident dinosaur.

Being an eighties action movie, albeit one with  aspects of self-aware self-parody, there’s not much in the way of strong female roles.

What’s right with it?

Big Trouble combines rapid-fire dialogue and martial arts action, broad comedy and an oddly intricate mytho-historical backstory to fine effect.

Kurt Russell and Dennis Dun are an exceptionally fun and likable double act, and the support players are all very good. Kim Catrall is probably the weakest link (she’s come into her own more recently, but in her early roles was mostly just called on to be pretty.) Victor Wong and James Wong as the rival sorcerers bring the necessary gravity to the business.

The film is packed with wonderful moments that still sparkle after all these years (“How did you get up there?” “Wasn’t easy!”)

How bad is it really?

This is a film with its share of problems, but it’s just such a lot of fun and even the neon strip lighting can’t detract from that.

Best bit (if such there is)?

There are so many cracking moments, especially once our heroes launch their final assault.

“Black blood of the Earth?”
“You mean oil?”
“I mean black blood of the Earth.”

“It will come out no more!”
“What?! What will come out no more?”

Can see things no one else can see. Do things no one else can do.”
Real things?”
“As real as Lo Pan!
“Hey, what more can a guy ask for?”
“Oh, the six-demon bag!”
“Terrific, a six-demon bag. Sensational. What’s in it, Egg?”
“Wind, fire, all that kind of thing!”

What’s up with…?

  • Jack Burton’s stylin’ action cardigan?
  • The goddamn neon?

Ratings

Production values – Big Trouble in Little China was never on the cutting edge of special effects, and these days has a mixed bag of dodgy neon and still pretty sweet practical work. 10
Dialogue and performances – The film’s dialogue can be hit or miss, but rattles along at such a pace that the score is good even when the percentages are down. Russell has rarely been better, and has a delightful chemistry with Dun, and Hong and Wong are clearly having a whale of a time as Lo Pan and Egg Shen. 5
Plot and execution – The narrative of Big Trouble is, depending on your point of view, either a rollercoaster ride or a hot mess, but this is at least in part by design, sharing Jack Burton’s confusion with the audience. 6
Randomness – The film throws a lot at the audience, seemingly out of nowhere, but this is actually less a matter of randomness, and more of creating a sense of a large and understood body of lore that Burton is bouncing off the surface of. 5
Waste of potential – While it suffers from budget constraints, Big Trouble in Little China is a cult classic for good reason. 3

Overall 29%

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