Spoilers might need to borrow a few spells.
We’re due for another John Carpenter classic and this is one of those indefensible ones. It’s impossible to turn on the nostalgia machine and not have this one come up as a classic product of the 80’s. It is full of cliches and over the top machismo and pseudo-folklore with a distinct Chinese flavour, without bothering itself with trying to portray anything accurately. It’s a loud, dumb and colorful action film with non-realistic kung-fu, magic and it’s so over the top that it really should start a new fiction/fantasy category. You gotta love it because it doesn’t take itself seriously either.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986) was directed by John Carpenter and originally written by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein (not the same Weinstein…). The script was actually “adapted” by W. D. Richter. Before the extensive rewrites, it was a western set in the 1880s (source: Wikipedia) until Richter re-adapt it to modern times. It did poor commercially but it has gained cult status since then.
Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is a loud, cocky trucker that drops its cargo in San Francisco’s Chinatown to play a game of cards and manages to win a big hand. His best buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) owes him big, but needs to pick up his future bride from the airport, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai, in literally a role where she doesn’t get to speak a word). Miao gets kidnapped at the airport by a Chinese street gang. Jack and Wang will have to team up with lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and local sorcerer and bus driver Egg Shen (Victor Wong) to defeat the forces of evil led by Lo Pan (James Hong).
Jack Burton is bit of a bumbling hero, a macho driven by his ego who has to have everything explained to him. His relationship with Wang is most interesting in the sense that Wang is the capable, more well-focused and smarter guy while Jack doesn’t quite get what’s going on and barely cares. There’s something about Jack that makes everyone else ask him for help and send him on a mission that he’s really completely unqualified for, but it works.
You kind of expect Jack to screw things more than they already are and he never disappoints you, but fortunately Wang and Gracie are there to direct him at the bad guy when needed. Yes, we’re using the nostalgia lenses as full blast, but the truth is you can sort of glimpse the subversion here. Jack is the incapable but lovable hero with the actually heroic team of people behind him.
The bad guys are not only evil, they’re downright demonic. That includes the three most badass entities known as the Storms: Thunder (Carter Wong), Rain (Peter Kwong) and Lightning (James Pax). Lightning is often believed to be the inspiration for Mortal Kombat’s Raiden. Even Lo Pan is also thought to have inspired MK’s Shang Tsung.
The visuals are gorgeous. We get golden Buddhas in a row on a luxurious corridor. Miao Yin and Gracie Law look striking in matching red attire and dramatic makeup in a white room. The foggy underground of Chinatown resembles a forest of Middle-Earth more than the sewer under the street. The practical effects of monsters and demons might look aged but still deliver most of its effect (add nostalgia lens for full effect). They don’t look any more cartoonish than Jack Burton trying to make quips in the face of the dark powers of Chinese demigods.
Flaws aplenty, but they’re part of the charm. Whenever Jack is thrown literally into an unexpected scenario to do battle with entities from another realm, he gets a quick debriefing of pseudo-folklore meant for the audience. But on the other hand, Jack is the actual comic relief while the great mayority of the asian cast plays more than capable characters with true motivation. You’d almost be tempted to think that things would go smoother without Jack, but certainly he brings a fun element of the would-be hero that thinks himself on top of things. In reality, he screws up almost to the verge to losing but manages to turn it around by luck or accident to win in the end.
Highly recommended with nostalgia lens at full blast for 80’s kids and fans of the era. Not all the jokes land and a lot of Jack’s boasting is cringy by today’s standards but it does make a great subversion of the action hero genre and the 80’s magical fantasy adventure with deep asian flavor. The Kung-Fu battles pay homage to the even older over-the-top martial films and include such a numerous asian cast that is never laughed at. It’s a campy overblown action comedy romp that never takes itself too seriously. Best viewed with a group of friends and fans of the era.
That will do for now.