“Big Trouble in Little China” – UMU’s Rob celebrates his first month with Universal Monsters Universe and concludes May’s “Sunday’s with…” with his favorite John Carpenter film starring Kurt Russell.
This week proves to be a milestone for me as it marks the end of my first month writing for UMU. In order to celebrate not only my first successful month, but also the end of my John Carpenter month, I felt it fitting to end it in a BIG way. Big Trouble in Little China not only is my favorite John Carpenter film, but is also one of my top five favorite movies of all time. I am going to make no effort in convincing you that this will be anything short of an extremely positive reflection of this classic! So, please sit back and enjoy my love letter that is: Sunday’s with John Carpenter’s Big trouble In Little China.
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA
Release Date: July 1, 1986
Run Time: 99 minutes
Starring: Kurt Russell
Director: John Carpenter
“I’m a reasonable guy, but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things!”- Jack Burton
Big Trouble in Little China introduces us to Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and his big rig, the Pork-Chop express. On a stopover in San Francisco’s China Town, Jack and his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) have a night of drinking and gambling. The gambling roles over into the morning and before Jack can collect his winnings and leave, Wang asks Jack to accompany him to the airport to pick up Wang’s fiancée Miao Yin. While at the airport we are introduced to Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) who is there to pick up her friend. A street gang named the Lords of Death attempt to kidnap Law’s friend but are stopped when Jack tries to step in. Instead the gang kidnaps Miao, and Jack and Wang are on the chase to get her back. The Pork-Chop express chases the Lords of Death through the back alleys of China Town until they run smack dab into a funeral procession for the Chang Sing, an ancient Chinese society. In comes the Wing Kong, the rivals of the Chang Sing and all hell erupts. As the two sides are battling each other we are introduced to “The Three Storms”: Thunder, Rain, and Lightning, who assist the Wing Kong in killing the Chang Sing. Burton and Wang are forced to escape so they drive the big rig out and it is here where we meet the evil wizard Lo Pan, who commands the Three Storms and the Wing Kong. After running over Lo Pan, Jack and Wang leave the big rig and make a run for it. When they return to the scene they discover that not only is the Pork-Chop express gone, but so is Miao Yin. Jack and Wang prepare themselves as best they can to get back what they love, but will they reach them in time before Lo Pan unleashes his evil plan?
I have been asked from time to time why I love Big Trouble. On the surface it is simply a comedic action flick that deals with magic, with typical eighties effects, actors, and sounds. My response to that is always as such: Cinema can fulfill two important roles. The first is to make the audience think or question things. The film maker can tackle issues, or fears that we as a society have and try to give some insight or an explanation to those fears. The second role is to provide the viewer with an escape. It can be an escape from work or the hardships of their everyday lives, but for a few hours we are removed of all the baggage we came into the theater with. Big Trouble in Little China is the perfect example of this second role. We are not asked to question things, or think about the atrocities that are going on around us; instead we are asked to sit back and for a brief period of time suspend belief and enjoy the ride that is in front of us. Few movies are more enjoyable in that sense to me than Big Trouble.
Where does Big Trouble in Little China fit into the larger movie landscape? It is a lot of different things: it is a comedy, it’s an action flick, it has some science fiction, fantasy and mysticism in it, it’s a martial arts movie, and even a monster movie. It is a combination of numerous genres that blends together into a truly unique and special movie going experience. Most impressive about this film is that it takes all of the conventions of these movie types and throws them out of the window. This is not a traditional movie in the sense of any of these genres and that is why it is so special. We view the film as if we are Jack Burton. Both Jack and the audience is rolling into a world that is already in motion, it does not start with his arrival, and because of this we are playing catch up with the other characters in the film. This was a very out of the box move because it goes against the traditional way of storytelling. Our main character is an important part of the story, however, it is the secondary characters that really advance the plot. In essence this could have occurred on any day of the week, it just so happened to be the day that Ole’ Jack rolled into town. John Carpenter also breaks a cardinal action movie rule: the hero of the film is involved in all of the action; he saves the day and gets the girl. In Big Trouble Jack never shies away from anything that is going on, however, he is rarely involved in the action! A perfect example of this is one of the final fight scenes when the Chang Sing, and the Wing Kong are charging each other and Jack knocks himself out with a piece of falling debris! That would have been unheard of in any other action film. Jack does eventually help save the day but he definitely does not do it alone which is another action convention that’s broken. Now I can already see the comment section filled with “but so and so had help from…” but the difference here is that Jack is really more of a help than the sole reason the day is saved. It is truly a group effort. Finally, the hero always gets the girl. Well, as I will delve into later, Jack could have the girl but in true Bogart fashion (Casablanca) he walks away. Carpenter really created a unique experience here not just in terms of plot, but he changed the traditional conventions of several genres to get there and he should be applauded for it. Kurt Russell should also be applauded for not only playing the role but for even accepting it. How many other “action” stars would accept a role in which they are hardly involved in the action of the film? It was a risky move and he absolutely nailed it.
From Snake Plissken and MacReady, to Stuntman Mike and John “The Hangman” Ruth, Kurt Russell is no stranger to playing bad ass memorable characters, however, Jack Burton in my opinion is the best. Jack Burton represents the best parts of what the average American male could be. Jack is a blue collar worker, full of bravado and swagger, and has his vices. The most humanizing and relatable trait about him? He is often clueless and out of his league in regards to what is going on around him, yet he doesn’t fear or shy away from it. All of these things rolled together make him an incredibly likable and charming character. Jack Burton is a hero, but he is a hero in the same regards as to how you or I could be a hero. Jack isn’t the most skilled yet he has confidence in himself, and wants to help by doing the right thing. Jack also knows who he is, meaning he never tries to be or do something that he is not. The end of the film is the perfect example of this. The beautiful Gracie Law asks Jack if he wants to stay with her and try things out but Jack leaves. The reason for this is, despite everything, Jack is a truck driver and he lives day to day and gets into adventures, but his life is one of the roads. Jack is comfortable being himself and I feel he is an amazing role model as to what we can and should strive to be. Being comfortable in who we are and confident in our own skills are amazing assets to have.
Big Trouble in Little China sports a talented cast of Carpenter alums, including Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, and Victor Wong. Dun truly impresses as Wang, especially considering that he was not a martial artist before this film. Victor Wong once again shines as Egg Shen. The beautiful Kim Cattrall brings her quick wit as Gracie Law, and it is absolutely impossible not to be taken by her humor and determination. However, it is James Hong who is mystifying as the wizard Lo Pan. Hong truly understood the character and perfectly portrays the thin line between tortured wizard, and decaying old man. Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, and James Pax also impress as Thunder, Rain, and Lightning respectively.
John Carpenter and Alan Howarth combine traditional rock with a synth heavy sound to create a truly unique score. Carpenter was actually nominated for a Saturn award for best musical score.
Boss Film Studios helmed the visual and monster effects and did a spectacular job in creating some unique creatures, and effects. Especially in the magical fight scene between Lo Pan and Egg Shen.
In true Carpenter style, Big Trouble under performed at the box office, and did not really find its groove until home video. Since its release Big Trouble has seen a video game tie-in, a comic book series from BOOM! Studios co-written by Carpenter, as well as countless figures and collectibles. A remake is said to be in the works and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is rumored to play Jack.
When I think of “cult film hits” Big Trouble in Little China jumps to the forefront of my mind. Why this film more than others you ask? The rabid fan base of this film is what pushes it ahead. The fan base of Big Trouble is so loyal you can not help but be infected by its enthusiasm. If you have never seen this film, I don’t know what your waiting for! And if you have seen it I implore you to revisit the magic that is Big Trouble in Little China. As an added bonus I highly recommend watching it with the commentary on. The relationship between John Carpenter and Kurt Russell is so fun and comfortable that it is hard to not feel like you are watching it with good friends! I don’t know why your still reading this, go and watch it now!
If you’d like to share your love of this film or any other Carpenter film, whether I covered it or not I would love to hear from you in the comments!