Blame ol’ Jack Burton.
While it’s true that the lukewarm reception to the chilling wonders of The Thing initially soured the notoriously independent John Carpenter to the big studio experience, it’s actually the mishandling of his 1986 attempt to crack the fantasy blockbuster by clueless executives that sent him storming back to the relative freedom of low budget/high concept schlock.
However, hindsight makes idiots of us all and much like virtually every other movie on his impressive resumé, Carpenter’s action/fantasy/comedy blowout turned out to be at least ten years ahead of it’s time and utterly wasted on a frustratingly disinterested 80’s public. In fact, despite the fact that it feature Kurt Russell as one of cinema’s greatest idiot heroes (you’ll find him somewhere between Evid Dead’s Ash and Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Peter Quill), Big Trouble In Little China proves to stealthily contain some of Carpenter’s most ballsy anti-establishment themes he’s ever smuggled into a movie.
I guess it’s all in the reflexes…
Stunningly loud mouthed trucker Jack Burton pulls into a rainy San Francisco to make a delivery and immediately racks up a sizable win while gambling with his buddy Wang Chi but in order to claim his winnings he has to help pick up Wang’s bride to be at the airport. Events take an impressive downturn when a roving gang subtly named the Lords Of Death abduct Miao Yin and speed off to Chinatown with Wang and Jack in hot pursuit – but things continue to get progressively out of hand when they stumble on an ancient blood feud between two warrior cultures known as the Chang Sing (white robes, yellow turbans, good) and the Wing Kong (black robes, red turbans, bad) that erupts into a full blown street fight. Jack trip to Chinatown gets even more traumatic with the arrival of a group of supernatural warriors known as the Three Storms and their leader, the towering, robed sorcerer Lo Pan (the ubiquitous James Hong) who has been cursed by the gods to spend eternity as a living ghost and it’s at that point the guys wisely get out of dodge at the expense of Jack’s truck.
Regrouping in order to formulate a plan to rescue Miao Yin from the sex traffickers she’s been sold to (this isn’t exactly a family flick), Jack, Wang and local lawyer Gracie Law are thwarted once again by the superpowered Storms who swipe Yin thanks to her rare green eyes being a major ingredient to Lo Pan lifting his condition which has left him hornier than an unneutered alley cat.
With the aide of local good wizard, local entrepreneur and Lo Pan expert, Egg Chan, a plan is made to launch a battle of good versus evil against these supernatural villains in a struggle that will involve magic, monsters and elemental beings that flings actual lighting the way most people throw a paper airplane and Jack, unsurprisingly, starts to feel way out of his depth despite his enormous, all-American ego.
Can this swaggering truck driver possibly hope to stand in the face of otherworldly evil while not having a single fucking clue as to the who, how, what and why to literally everything that is happening around him?
When looked at through a magnifying glass (or simply just with your eyes because it’s pretty freakin’ obvious), it’s not that much of a shocker that Carpenter’s bout of fantastic lunacy was mishandled by it’s studio. Nowadays we take advertising campaigns for overtly bizarre genre mash-ups for granted with everything from Guardians Of The Galaxy to low budget, throwback Psycho Goreman being accurately described by their trailers; but what the hell was an advertising executive supposed to make of Big Trouble back in 1986? There legitimately wasn’t anything like it in American cinema at the time and the energetic fusion of Eastern and Western (something Carpenter had wanted to try for a while with Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors Of The Magic Mountain being a massive influence) just seemed to confound everyone who came in contact with it.
Of course, we now all know that those people were damn fools and the probable main source of confusion is now recognized as one of the movie greatest features; the magnificently un-self aware ignorance of our strutting “hero”, Jack Burton who, with the exception of They Live’s John Nada, may be the most blue collar of Carpenter’s parade of working class heroes. Flawlessly played by Carpenter muse Kurt Russell in possibly his greatest comedic performance (eat shit, Captain Jack), he ingeniously channels John Wayne while cheekily poking fun at the notion of the white saviour where a notoriously caucasian hero wades into a foreign dispute while mastering it’s culture and saving the day. However, the joke here is that BTILC is openly mocking this trope by pushing the hideously unprepared Burton to the forefront of the craziness when it’s his pal, Wang Chi (the charismatic Dennis Dun) who’s actually far more prepared to be the hero – yet neither of them appear to realise that the movie has swapped their “hero” and “sidekick” roles. It’s an audacious joke at the expense of it’s audience that surely would have been received with bewilderment during a period where Regan’s america was drunk with superpower and constantly patting itself on the back but the filmmakers puncture it awesomely while constantly having Jack cope with violent, crazy encounters in a way that belies his super-confident exterior as his facade starts to show micro-cracks at how much he’s shitting himself inside. Watch Russell hungrily play up the goof-ball within as he loses his knife, forgets to take the safety off on his gun and acciedently gets incapacitated not once, but twice during the climactic battle.
Matching Russell’s gloriously displays of in-character idiocy is the fact that the movie is almost unfairly overloaded with a ton of unbearably cool shit with the best of all being basking in awe in the giant straw headgear of Thunder, Rain and Lightning, Lo Pan’s trio of elemental heavies known collectively as The Three Storms. Surely the coolest fucking trifecta of villains in 80’s, cinematic history, their powers (Thunder’s body swells like his namesake while Rain is super agile and Lightning makes Thor bolt throwing look like a damp sparkler) simply fucking rule, as does the gaggle of Steve (Ghostbusters) Johnson designed beasties that inhabit the movie – for the record, the ginger haired, gator mouthed Wild Man is my favourite…
While the martial arts may not be of the same quality as that of the Kung Fu showcased by Shaw Brothers studios or the kind of frenetic brawls Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung were staging overseas, it’s still pretty awesome and it’s all encompassed by one of Carpenter’s more memorable scores, although stick around for some prime 80’s cheese during the end credits thanks to his band, the Coupe De Villes, that feature orginal Michael Myers actor Nick Castle on keyboards…
Any issues? Some. To keep you as off balance as Jack himself, the movie throws everything it has at you while hardly pausing to explain an initially may be a little too frenetic and while it does well to mostly keep it’s toes out of any overtly offensive portrayals (fantastic moment – Jack: “Any of these guys savvy English?” Chang Sing Warrior: (with natural American accent) “Hey man, who is this guy?”) it doesn’t really do much to dissuade anyone of the stereotypical notion that all asians know Kung Fu – in fact, it maybe one of the strongest purveyors of this trope in movie history. Oh, and as it’s the 80’s some of Jack’s relentless pursuing of Kim Cattrall’s Grasie noticeably hasn’t exactly aged well while the movie tends to lean a little too strong making it’s female cast purely damsels in distress with Miao Yin at one point actually getting kidnapped from the people who are currently kidnapping her…
With all that being said, the fact that Big Trouble In Little China now gets the love it should have gotten decades ago fills my heart with joy (I first saw it when I was ten) and while a constantly threatened Dwayne Johnson remake possibly looms in the future, this is one movie that’s definitely paid it’s dues – and you know what old Jack Burton says when someone asks you if you’ve paid your dues?
Have you’ve paid your dues, Jack? Yessir, the check is in the mail.