Tuesday, April 03, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Last Friday, I wrote here about the controversial Dino De Laurentiis version of Flash Gordon (1980), a genre film concerning a dashing American hero uniting an alien world, Mongo and bringing justice to the oppressed citizens there.  

Another one of my all-time favorite cult movies is John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986), a film set entirely on Earth but which nonetheless shares some important qualities with Flash Gordon. 

Specifically, Big Trouble in Little China involves an American hero treading into a mysterious, non-Western world where he feels like an “outsider.”  That world, in this case, is not literally another planet, but rather the mystical and dangerous world of Chinese black magic. 

So once more, movie audiences get an on-screen representative of “us” countenancing a strange land and strange customs, but Big Trouble in Little China leverages tremendous humor not only from the peculiarities of this culture clash, but from the rather dramatic presentation of the American hero in question.   

To wit, Kurt Russell’s truck-driving, self-important protagonist, Jack Burton, is a swaggering, blundering John Wayne-voiced blow-hard.   He’s Jack Blurtin’, so-to-speak.

And yet Jack also reveals (in the words of the screenplay) “great courage” under stress, and his heart is always (well, almost always...) in the right place.  I have always maintained that the accident-prone but intrinsically heroic Burton represents director Carpenter’s most positive silver screen depiction of American dominance upon the world stage, especially compared with the perspectives showcased in the dystopian Escape from New York (1981) and the 1980s social critique, They Live (1988).

I also wrote in my book The Films of John Carpenter that “it’s all in the reflexes,” to quote Jack. So Big Trouble in Little China serves as Carpenter’s almost reflexive tribute to the style of Chinese martial arts films.  Thus, this is a movie that rests largely on Carpenter's unimpeachable film-making instincts, his fully-developed directorial muscle or chops.  The action sequences -- particularly an early one set in a Chinatown alley -- represent a visual tour de force.   The final battle in the film is one of the most giddy, over-the-top, visually-dynamic set-pieces put to celluloid in the 1980s, and a high point for the fantasy/action genre.

But here's the big secret in Little China: the film is much more than action too.

What is Big Trouble in Little China, then?   Well, the film is one part culture clash, one part genre pastiche and all camp humor. Writing for the Village Voice, Scott Foundas suggested Big Trouble was a “far more enjoyable mash-up of classic Westerns, Saturday-morning serials, and Chinese wu xia than any of the Indiana Jones movies, with Kurt Russell in full bloom as Carpenter's de rigueur hard-drinkin', hard-gamblin', wise-crackin' loner hero—a bowling-alley John Wayne.”

And as critic Richard Corliss wrote in Time Magazine (“Everything New is Old Again”), Big Trouble in Little Chinaoffers dollops of entertainment, but it is so stocked with canny references to other pictures that it suggests a master’s thesis that moves.”

And boy, how Big Trouble in Little China moves.  It never stops moving, in fact.

This is one frenetically-paced spectacular, and the feeling of unfettered delight Carpenter engenders simply from the film’s manic sense of speed is a remarkable thing.  One scene near the climax that begins with a close-up of a hammer pounding an alarm bell escalates to such intense velocity that your heart threatens to leap out of your chest.  And naturally,the moment ends on a joke.  After running a gauntlet of monsters, bullets, and opponents, Jack Burton is nearly undone...by a red traffic light.

Frankly, I’ve never understood why so many critics rejected this film upon its release in the summer of 1986, but as I always argue: don’t bet against John Carpenter in the long-run.  Big Trouble in Little China has ably survived the slings and arrows of bad reviews and stood the test of time to emerge one of the most beloved cult movies of the 1980s. 

I think this is likely so because of Jack Burton.  Other films have been set in distinctive "underworlds," and many movies have been set against the backdrop of Chinese myth or legend.

But there is only one Jack Burton.

“Everybody relax. I’m here.”

When his friend, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is unable to re-pay a bet, surly truck driver Jack Burton (Russell) tags along to the airport to pick up Wang’s betrothed, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai).  Unfortunately, the green-eyed beauty is abducted right out from under the duo by a Chinese gang known as the “Lords of Death.”  Miao Yin is then delivered into the custody of an ancient warlord and cursed spirit called Lo Pan (James Hong).  Lo Pan believes that if he marries and sacrifices a green-eyed woman, he will be rendered flesh again, after two-thousand years as an insubstantial ghost.

Jack and Wang pursue the gang to Chinatown and become embroiled in an all-out gang war.  Jack’s parked truck is stolen from an alleyway, and the theft draws the skeptical American further into the realm of Chinese black magic.  Soon, Jack teams-up with an elder sorcerer, Egg Shen (Victor Wong) and a crusading lawyer, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) to stop Lo Pan and recover Wang’s would-be bride and his own ride.  This quest takes Jack deep underground, into the Hell of Upside Down Sinners, into Lo-Pan’s secret lair, and into fierce battle with monsters, warriors and ghosts of all shapes and sizes.

“May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.”

As the The Village Voice review notes, Big Trouble in Little China can be interpreted as an example of the Chinese literary and film form known as the Wu xia, or simply “wuxia.”  

In stories of this type, a young hero survives and overcomes tragedy in his life, undertakes a heroic quest, and ultimately emerges as a great fighter and an adult, all while maintaining a strict code of honorable behavior.  To state the matter broadly, “wuxia” is the Chinese equivalent of the western-based “heroic journey.”  It’s a rite-of-passage tale, and one that heavily features a romantic component.

Big Trouble in Little China conforms with many details of the established wuxia formula if and only if the viewer considers Wang Chi the film’s prime hero figure.  Wang loses his bride-to-be, undertakes the quest to save her, and becomes – during the course of the film – a real hero.   Each time he fights, Wang becomes stronger until, by film’s end, he is actually an equal to Lo Pan’s invincible minions, the Storms.  

Of course, the quality that makes Big Trouble in Little China so unusual as wuxia and as action film is that the capable hero – the man on the quest and with all the heroic capabilities – is but a sidekick or second fiddle to the star, the bumbling, accident-prone Burton. 

Thus, in some significant but very funny and subversive way, Big Trouble in Little China questions and teases long-standing Hollywood assumptions that America and Americans must always stand at the center of the cinematic action, and must always play the “hero.”  This film suggests there’s another tradition and source of inspiration for cinematic adventure too.  

After all, George Lucas raided the film oeuvre of Akira Kurosawa to create Star Wars, so here John Carpenter pays tribute to Eastern-produced martial arts fantasies and their unique style of heroic storytelling. 

Again and again, then, Big Trouble in Little China invites us to view our "hero" Burton in distinctly funny and non-traditional terms.  He faces the implacable bad guys with bright red lip-stick marring his face, for example.  Far from striking fear in the heart of his enemies, Jack’s battle cry actually renders only himself unconscious.  At one point, we see Jack miss his intended target with a knife throw, and on several occasions he expresses fear and uncertainty about the creatures and world around him.

In spite of all this, Jack is certainly persistent and loyal and yes, heroic. So you get the feeling that, when held in contrast to the film’s Asian characters, Carpenter’s depiction of Jack charts an intriguing new global dynamic.  

Specifically, American might and bravery joins with Asian complexity for a great victory against evil.  Jack is a big and strong American, grounded in stereotypical western concepts, whereas the Asians are more introspective and ambivalent. In other words, Jack seems to live on the surface of reality; reality as his (limited) imagination weighs it. This quality enables him to see clearly “right” and “wrong.”  By comparison, the Chinese characters dwell in a more ambivalent, complicated self-doubting state; one where modernity requires them to eschew the beliefs they know to be true.

In terms of the film’s characters, the Americans in Big Trouble in Little China are defined basically by what they look like and what they say.  Jack is a muscle-bound, athletic truck driver and looks every bit the traditional hero.  Gracie Law is a beautiful lawyer and simultaneously a walking parody of the old Hollywood film cliché: the lady crusader.  “I’m always poking my nose where it doesn’t belong,” she enthuses at one point, effectively defining her own purpose in the narrative.  Both Jack and Gracie boast an exaggerated sense of self-importance too.  At one point, Jack blusters into a room and says, flat-out, “Don’t worry, I’m here.”

The Eastern characters, by contrast, seemed defined…differently.  On the surface, Egg-Shen appears to be a little old man and bus driver, but in reality he is a powerful sorcerer.  Wang Chi is a skinny, diminutive man who works in his uncle’s Chinese restaurant, and yet is actually a warrior of superb skills.  The Chinese heroes seem to possess layers of self-awareness, modesty and contradiction that Jack and Gracie do not.

Kurt Russell does a mean John Wayne impersonation as Jack, and that choice underlines the film’s unique approach to heroism.  When we think of John Wayne, we think of the idealized American hero, a man from a time when “men were men” and  when morality was as plain as black and white.  But Jack Burton drives his truck into an alleyway in Chinatown in this film, and all bets are off.   Suddenly, he might as well be on another planet, just like Flash Gordon because he’s asked to countenance an ethnically diverse world where all the truths he holds dear about the nature of the universe may no longer apply.  Certainty is harder to come by.  

If John Wayne had met the moral ambiguity of the late 1970s or 1980s, perhaps he’d be Jack Burton. 

The front-and-center placement of the anachronistic John Wayne character in a drama about foreign mythology and spiritual is the very thing that makes Big Trouble in Little China more than just your average adventure film, but rather a commentary on our shifting position in a globalized world.  In the 1980s, when it looked like the East (particularly Japan) was rising to eclipse America in terms of innovation and technology, along came Big Trouble in Little China to -- with tongue-in-cheek -- critique our place in the new world order.  

I’m feeling a little like an outsider here,” says Jack.  “You are,” is the reply from the Chinese.  But then, as they must readily admit, the Chinese protagonists need Jack.  Their destiny rests in his “capable hands.”   He is the one they require (with his black and white views of the world?) to bring "order out of chaos."

Jack has a lot of catching-up to do in the film in terms of understanding Chinese lore and mysticism, but in the final analysis, who ultimately takes out Lo Pan?

When Jack does save the day (because he was born ready, remember), he does so, literally, with time-worn reflexes.  Lo Pan tosses a knife at him, and Jack instinctively tosses it back, with fatal results.  When Jack states “it’s all in the reflexes” it’s a deliberate comment on America too.  Our reflex – our instinct - is to act heroically, even if we don’t always think our way fully through a problem before jumping in.  We may have to play catch up, like Jack, but when big trouble rears its head, the world counts on us to do something...and we invariably deliver.  

Moving with breathtaking speed and with ample good humor, Big Trouble in Little China is much smarter than it tends to get credit for.  It takes the long-standing cliché of American Exceptionalism -- seen in more straightforward fashion in Flash Gordon -- and both questions and re-affirms it for the age of globalism.   But if the delightful, one-of-a-kind Jack Burton – warts and all – is an insult to our traditional American images of strength and power as some film scholars insist, then, to quote the great man himself, “Go ahead…insult me.” 

Because when the "chips are down," you can count on Jack Burton.  

(Not to mention John Carpenter).


  1. A BTILC review. Nice!

    I disagree with critic Scott Foundas that this surpasses the fun and flavor of the Indiana Jones movies, but I would agree that it stands proudly alongside them. I love this movie to pieces! I love Burton’s Fu Manchu tank top (an all-American hero wearing China in comic-strip form -- perfect!) ...I love Egg Shen’s crystal rocket launcher ...I love how he and Lo Pan throw down in an all-out, 'purple vs. green' arcade game version of ancient Chinese sorcery ...I love the general 'fuck it!' mentality this movie has by tossing aside any shred of realism or common sense when hiding an demonic underworld of ghost and monsters right under modern day San Francisco ...I love the comedic timing:

    "Just sit tight. We’ve got one of our best men inside right now, stirring the pot."

    Cut to Henry Swanson: "Boy, it sure is raining cats and dogs."

    This is yet another case where I’ve long since recognized the thematic brilliance of a particular movie but was never able to articulate the details into worlds. Outstanding review. You really nailed this one’s qualities down the 'T'.

    However, I think some appreciation is due to W.D. Richter’s second draft of the script, which was a complete overhaul of the original by Gary Goldman and David Weinstein, even though it was the latter two who eventually who won the writing credits. There’s some interesting comparisons between this and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, as it likewise features a crisscross of East and West culture with the titular hero being half American and half Japanese. A cowboy-samurai.

    Finally, going back to Indiana Jones; is just me or was there a back'n'forth between those movies and this one, The Thing, E.T. and Starman? It’s as if Spielberg and Carpenter were engaging in some friendly, off-the-books match of cinematic racquetball, bouncing audiences through similar genres and from one old-Hollywood homage to the next. I’d like to shake their hands for that. The 80s was a whole lotta of fun largely because of those two.

  2. Well said, JKM! I think one can't stress the contributions of W.D. Richter on the film's screenplay for making it such an esoteric delight. He, of course, directed another cult film oddball, BUCKAROO BANZAI, and, at times, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA feels like it could exist in the same universe.

    I think that the reason it did not do well with critics or audiences back in the day is that they weren't ready for how much it broke from convention and how odd it was. The film really satirizes the conventions of big budget action/adventure films like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and poses questions like: What if Indy and Marion didn't hook up at the end of RAIDERS? Or, what if Short Round was the real hero in TEMPLE OF DOOM instead of Indy? These are all things you see in BIG TROUBLE as Carpenter turns the action/adenture film on its head. And I'm sure that is what draws its dedicated cult following - people who are looking for something a little different, that thumbs its nose at convention.

    I remember seeing this when I was young when it first came out and even then realizing that this was something unique, something to be cherished and have watched more times than I can remember over the years.

    While THE THING is probably Carpenter's masterpiece (or maybe HALLOWEEN), BIG TROUBLE is the film I enjoy watching the most and is one of those rare films I can put on almost any time and enjoy.

  3. How good is this movie? Seriously, how good is this movie? It is so good, not even Kim Catrall, I said KIM CATRALL, could ruin it! That means this may be the most powerful film ever shot.

  4. Love this film! So many things to admire about this John Carpenter flick (and I mean 'flick' in the most heartfelt manner). Any Kurt Russell fan can quote so many lines from this one. Obviously, Jack Burton is such an anachronism in this. He's the modern western hero (from who knows where) in a story of black magic, adventure, Chinese mysticism, and a good deal of martial arts thrown in, to boot. Plus, he's really playing the funny and inept sidekick from the position of protagonist. It really is so much goddamn fun (and I mean that in the best and most complementary way) to watch. I never tire of it. You've done BTiLC extraordinarily well in your piece today, John. Great job!!!

  5. I don't know, when I think of John Wayne, I think of a man named Marion Morrison, sanctimonious, macho-posturing, and a WWII draft dodger...but I get what the correlation was meant to indicate.

  6. To build a little on what J.D. says above, I suspect Big Trouble's early failure was because the film was ahead of its time. Most audiences in 1986 were not at all familiar with the Hong Kong action tradition that Carpenter was referencing. Movie fans in big coastal cities had access to bootleg tapes and even Chinatowns, but for the folks in "flyover country" (like my own hometown of Salt Lake City), martial-arts films were a short-lived fad of the 1970s that all starred Bruce Lee. Mix in the Big Trouble's subversive conceit that the American guy is the bumbling sidekick, and I suspect a lot of people just didn't know what to make of it. I know I certainly didn't the first time I saw it. This is a movie that has grown on me over the years through repeated viewings and finally coming to understand what Carpenter was doing. I love it now, but back in '86? Well, I spent almost as much time wondering what the hell was going on in this movie as Jack Burton does...

  7. Grayson7:23 PM

    An all-around excellent film. Great commentary JKM!

    The character of Lo Pan reminds me very much of the character of Mr. Won from the excellent children's novel The Three Investigators and the Mystery of the Green Ghost by Robert Arthur. In the book our heroes travel to the mysterious world of San Francisco Chinatown.

  8. Woodchuckgod6:40 PM

    One of my all-time favorites here. Fun read, John! In addition to the above things already mentioned, one thing I always enjoyed so much about this was how the dialogue just snapped out like strings of new year's firecrackers. I could probably quote lines all day.

  9. Great review of a movie that's *impossible* to get tired of. This is a desert island flick.

  10. George10:07 AM

    Great review John, and I loved your Carpenter book. I hope Carpenter can take solace in the fact that even though many of his films went DOA at the box office on release and were critically panned( I don't know why), they are now recognized as not only genre classics, but classic films period. We're the same age John, do you remember the hate for The Thing by sci-fi fans in 1982? Loved Big Trouble, but I was a big fan of the Shaw Brothers movies which were a staple of NYC tv on Saturdays in the 80s ( channel 5 Drive in Theatre). Great review John.


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