Director: John Carpenter
Stars: Kurt Russell (Jack Burton), Kim Cattrall (Gracie Law), Dennis Dun (Wang Chi), James Hong (David Lo Pan), Victor Wong (Egg Shen), Kate Burton (Margo)
Genre: Action / Adventure / Comedy
Some films in this series (The Red Shoes, The Apartment, The Night Of The Hunter etc) are here because they are genuinely timeless masterpieces. Recognised peaks in cinema virtually without detractors. Some films, however, are here not because they achieve something for the medium, but simply because they’re loved. Big Trouble In Little China is such a film. In many senses it’s a bad movie – but these also count towards just why it’s such a great movie.
“That’s how it always begins. Very small”, intones old sage Egg Shen at the front of the picture as he sits in an office with Jerry Hardin’s attorney. It’s a stiff start to what will transpire to be a rambunctious little movie, but they are words worth taking on board as for the first half hour or so, Big Trouble doesn’t exactly ignite. Things are fine for your average 80s straight-to-VHS faux-chopsocky actioner, but there is little in these early scenes to really convey the ramshackle, tongue-in-cheek assault that Carpenter has planned.
Sure, the fantastic elements are established through crackling lightning effects and the occasional plume of green smoke, but so too are uncomfortable racial stereotypes, wooden supporting players and a plot seemingly phoned-in from any number of similar derivative timewasters. It doesn’t bode well.
Even Kurt Russell – by this time a staple of Carpenter’s films – seems to coast, though Jack Burton is all there immediately; a talk-first think-later truck-driving wise-ass not above (repeatedly) admitting that he doesn’t know what’s going on.
But then… Big Trouble starts to ramp up the crazy. The absurd kicks in. If they’re not already ringing, then alarm bells will surely start going off at the introduction of supernatural fighting trio Thunder, Rain and Lightning, showing off their manic expressions, Inspector Gadget weaponry and nimble abilities to suspend themselves indefinitely in the air. Lightning literally rides his lightning. It’s around this time that the ‘plot’ of Big Trouble reveals itself for what it is; a flimsy excuse to bounce the characters from one unusual encounter to another whilst the dialogue goes off-the-charts weird (i.e. off-the-charts brilliant).
“I’d go with you but…”
“I know, there’s a problem with your face”
…start being bandied about. Mere seconds later, before you’ve even caught your breath from that one, Russell’s Jack Burton declares, “Okay. You people sit tight, hold the fort and keep the home fires burning. And if we’re not back by dawn… call the president.”
If that isn’t enough to warrant this film’s inclusion in this series, I don’t know what is.
It’s not just one-liners either. Whole bundles of exposition are force-fed to the actors, only to be expelled in breathless tirades. Carpenter and subtlety rarely go hand in hand, but even he is wise enough to know ham-fisted dialogue when he hears it. The tenor of Big Trouble In Little China is entirely intentional. And with the characters and their hokey mannerisms firmly in place, it’s time to pile on the set pieces.
Remember when Jack goes hurtling backwards down a corridor in a wheelchair, only to find himself precariously suspended over a deep well? Screw the laws of physics – that is a great moment. And the free-for-all battle at the bottom of Lo Pan’s deathly escalator (yes, deathly escalator)? A ridiculous carnival of mayhem. Not to mention Jack’s sticky situation with a deceased armoured warrior during said carnage.
Speaking of which, it becomes apparent that Jack Burton isn’t your ordinary action hero. Virtually every line that comes out of his mouth in the second half of the film is an incredulous question, as events spiral out of his control and comprehension. His ‘sidekick’ Wang however is far more capable, as is old sage Egg Shen. Their adaptability and know-how save the film from its prior racial profiling, and lends proceedings many hearty laughs at Jack’s expense. At a key moment when you’d expect Jack to save the day… he drops his knife. By the time he’s got himself situated again, Wang’s saved the day.
Later, as the final showdown rears its head, Carpenter subverts things again; Jack kisses Gracie Law passionately, only to face the final confrontation with a bright red lipstick mark. He looks absurd. Carpenter is sending up the classic American hero and it’s a joy to behold.
In short, Big Trouble is a riot. What appears clearer than anything is that the people making this movie were having a blast. Firebrand rebels running wild with Hollywood’s money, everything and the kitchen sink are thrown at the screen, budgetary and acting limitations be damned. Carpenter, Russell and co. surely can’t have believed their luck. It’s infectious. So screw the plot holes (what is that monster anyway?), who needs every box ticked when so much mania is making you laugh through your popcorn?
Carpenter made more successful films, more intense films, more atmospheric films, but did he ever make such a fun film? The answer is obviously no. And Big Trouble, sadly, marked more-or-less the end of this purple patch of his. As the 90s came and went his output became less frequent and more scattershot in quality. The law of diminishing returns finally caught up with him.
Hopefully Big Trouble won’t prove to be his last great hurrah. He recently returned out of suspected retirement with The Ward. It hardly set the world on fire, but who knows? Maybe we’ll still get one last glorious, ramshackle ride out of him. But even if we don’t, we have this movie.
It ain’t big (okay, it is big, the title says so), it ain’t clever. But there are other movies for that. You want a good night in? You stick with ol’ Jack Burton. The cheque for that one is, as they say, in the mail.