I’m almost certain of it: Big Trouble in Little China is the first film by John Carpenter that I saw and adored (for the record, it was released in 1986). So it wasn’t Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), nor Halloween (1978), nor The Fog (1980), not even Vampires (1998)… My first memory of Jack Burton and company dates back to when I was twelve or thirteen and with slightly older friends we watched horror movies in the basement of one of them. Between one giant pizza eaten by Freddy Krueger and the other (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, 1988), I remember seeing the fantastic martial arts fights between Chinese gangs with the good old Kurt Russell in there for some reason. And from then on it was just love for John Carpenter’s cinema!
But let’s start from the plot of Big Trouble in Little China. A dialogue between a lawyer interpreted by Jerry Hardin (Deep Throat in the first season of The X-Files) and Egg Shen (Victor Wong) introduces us to the fantasy world of the film and to the fact that Jack Burton, the truck driver played by Kurt Russell, did something heroic in San Francisco’s Little China. In the next scene here comes Jack Burton saying some bullshit at the radio of his truck, the Pork Chop Express, with the attitude of one who knows a lot about the world. And then he proves he’s good at gambling by winning a lot of money from his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun). Money that he doesn’t have, of course, which brings Jack to accompany him to the airport to receive Wang’s girlfriend, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai). But she’s kidnapped by a Chinese gang, the Lords of Death, who want to sell her as a prostitute!
And from this moment begins an incredible adventure in Little China in which rival gangs fight with each other, but at the same time three powerful spirits appear, Thunder, Rain, and Lightning, who bring terror to the neighborhood with both martial arts and black magic. Jack Burton, loses his truck after meeting the one who commands the three spirits, the evil Lo Pan (James Hong), and decides to accompany his friend Wang, the good Egg Shen and a handful of brave warriors into the home of Lo Pan on a mission to save from the sacrifice both Miao Yin and the beautiful Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), who also ended up caught in this mess.
The film has an unrelenting pace from start to finish and turns out to be probably the best action fantasy ever made (along with movies like Conan the Barbarian, 1982, and The Princess Bride, 1987, with which it shares a good dose of humor). John Carpenter had always wanted to shoot a martial arts film and here he demonstrated not only to be able to do it, but also to be able to shoot one that remains firmly in the history of cinema! Too bad it was a gigantic box office bomb and almost convinced the director to give up his career… but that’s another story!
And perhaps this is not entirely surprising. In the Eighties the muscular action cinema was in vogue thanks to actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator, 1984, Commando, 1985, Raw Deal, 1986), Sylvester Stallone (the various Rocky and Rambo movies made between 1976 and… now!), and Mel Gibson (with his Mad Max and Lethal Weapon sagas), but maybe the world was not yet ready for a parody of those same films. Yes, you heard me right, because the film by John Carpenter is not only a perfect action film, but at the same time it’s a perfect parody of the genre: the hero of the film, played by the huge Kurt Russell, is practically a moron who doesn’t do anything for the whole fucking movie! During the fights he manages to lose consciousness by shooting at the ceiling, he’s unable to use a firearm because of the safety, he stops to tie his shoes and misses all the action… Only in the Nineties ironic action films like True Lies (1994) started to become popular! You may say that already in 1981 a film like Raiders of the Lost Ark was both popular and ironic, but it was a different genre altogether as it honored the adventure series loved by the young Lucas and Spielberg, it wasn’t muscular action. Being ahead of one’s time is sometimes not a great advantage and even if now Big Trouble is considered an unmissable cult, at the time it didn’t even recover half of its 25 million dollars’ budget, de facto exiling John Carpenter from the great Hollywood productions forever.
But what makes Big Trouble in Little China an unmissable cult? Well… everything! The action scenes are shot, edited, and choreographed beautifully; the fantasy elements blend perfectly with the martial arts theme of the movie; the cinematography enhancing the bright colors and perfectly balancing light and darkness accompanies well the tone of the story; the actors are all amazing and give life to memorable characters; the soundtrack is FANTASTIC (I wrote about John Carpenter’s music here); the dialogues are funny; the rhythm never stops… I don’t know, maybe I’m not objective but I cannot find a single fault in this movie. I watch it at least once a year and every time I enjoy it like when I was twelve years old! If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you to find it and watch it, and let me state right now that the rumored remake with Dwayne Johnson as protagonist won’t have even one percent of the quality of the original. Ciao!
PS: How many quotable lines of dialogues does this film offer? It’s all in the reflexes; Have you paid your dues? Yessir, the check is in the mail!; Ready Jack? I was born ready!; and Follow the leader! immediately followed by We may be trapped…
PPS: Let me also recommend buying the Bluray of this film, even if only for the commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell who have a good time telling anecdotes about the film (and about their children playing hockey and playing various musical instruments)! For example, the first scene was requested by a producer worried that Jack Burton didn’t come out as heroic enough in the film. The two say that while laughing and commenting: He didn’t get it, didn’t he? On the other hand, movies like Rambo were roaring, how to blame the producer? It was the first time that the supposed hero was actually the comic relief and the true hero was the secondary character (and moreover he was Asian)!
- The movie trailer on Youtube
- The movie page on Internet Movie DataBase
- Movie review on SKJAM!
- Movie review on Cam’s corner of horror
- Movie review on Delirium Tremens
- Movie review on Sci-fi lit fantasy chick
- Movie review on We’ve got (back) issues
- Movie review by Oliver Harper on Youtube
- Movie review by Cinemassacre with Macaulay Culkin on Youtube