Big Trouble In Little China

cast: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, and Victor Wong

director: John Carpenter

95 minutes (15) 1986
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Tony Lee

This has long been one of my favourite Carpenter films – an ever watchable blend of comedy adventure, ghost story, kung fu, action thriller, monster movie, fantasy romance, it deftly mix ‘n’ matches genre elements with a crowd pleasing style. It was the director’s 11th film, after the teen and killer-car horrors of Stephen King adaptation, Christine (1983), and the upbeat science fiction of Starman (1984), Big Trouble In Little China moved in yet another direction.
After a pre-credits scene in which Chinese tour-bus driver Egg Shen (Victor Wong – a gifted actor who makes you want to believe in magic, weird science, or whatever he says!) starts explaining to a lawyer (Jerry Hardin, who went on play ‘Deep Throat’ in first season of The X-Files) what really happened in Chinatown, we flashback into the introductory scene for trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell, former Disney player who made several films with Carpenter, including Escape From New York, Elvis, and The Thing). Although Egg has just described Jack as saviour of the situation, we immediately grasp that he is actually something of a ridiculous blowhard, promoting his fuzzy philosophy to anyone listening on the CB radio. His truck is called the Pork Chop Express, and he’s either bold enough or unashamed to use hilariously bad clichés, such as “on a dark and stormy night” – as he waffles on regardless of whether what he says makes sense. Most surprising of all is that this commentary is relevant to both the freewheeling plot and Jack’s unconventional character.
When Jack arrives in the busy markets of San Francisco’s Chinatown district, we meet Wang Chi (Dennis Dun, who played the doomed police informant Herbert Kwang, in Michael Cimino’s excellent Year Of The Dragon, 1985), a headstrong restaurateur who appears nervous about meeting his fiancée, Miao Yin (model Suzee Pai, making her film debut), at the airport. Here, Carpenter hints at one of the film’s often-misunderstood twists: in which traditional roles of all-American hero and foreign (whether black or Asian) sidekick are reversed. It’s not that Jack is a coward in Big Trouble; he’s simply an ineffective macho protagonist. The true champion of this adventure is Wang, partly because he understands the cultural background, but also because – unlike Jack – he believes in the powers of magic from the start.
Other characters are introduced in rapid succession, with some clipped Hawksian dialogue, in sequences of confidently pared-down economy. There’s feisty and attractive, crusading lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall, now a TV star in Sex And The City), the inexperienced but eager reporter, Margo (Kate Burton), and central villain David Lo Pan (James Hong) an ancient 2,000-year-old magician. Each of the supporting cast brings a welcome, wholly necessary, sense of humour to their largely unambiguous stereotyped characters.
A street gang, called the Lords of Death, kidnap Miao Yin from the airport and when Jack and Wang pursue them back into Chinatown, our heroes are involved in a riotous back-alley fight scene. This is where the fantasy element kicks in with one surprise following another, as Jack runs his truck straight through the ghost form of Lo Pan, and a dignified Chinese funeral procession is disrupted by a wild gun battle between the Chang Sings and Wing Kong, rival tongs that go hand-to-hand with sticks and blades when they run out of ammo. This brawl is broken up by the arrival of the three ‘Storms’ – supernaturally bulletproof, Thunder (Carter Wong), Rain (Peter Kwong), and Lightning (James Pax). Though strange, offbeat and unusual, events have been fairly normal until this moment, but now we enter the realm of magic and wonders as the flying Storms make short work of all their foes. There’s more of this to come in the next major visual effects sequence, when Jack clumsily leads the way for Wang’s attempt to rescue his captured girlfriend from the White Tiger brothel. Again, the super-powered Storms, arriving with an explosive blaze of emerald fire, while still wearing their splendid lampshade hats, intervene to snatch Miao Yin away into the mystic night.
One thing that Carpenter does exceptionally well in terms of film comedy is the next scene, where he directs the actors to deliver backstory speeches with tongue-in-cheek style. Playing this key expositional stuff, which sets everything up for the film’s second half, for laughs distracts us from acknowledging the group’s failure to save Miao Yin, and makes the heroes realise they can’t tackle the evil powers of Lo Pan without the expert help of wise sorcerer, Egg Shen.
Here’s the gist: Lo Pan needs to marry and then sacrifice a girl with green eyes to appease Chinese demon Ch’ing-ti, and get his flesh and youth back. When he gets his clawed hands on both Miao Yin and Gracie (both have green eyes), he sees a way to subvert the prophesy – taking his life back while keeping his chosen bride alive. He plans to marry both women in a colourful wedding ceremony featuring an act of act of blood drinking that’s wholly necessary for this arch fantasy story’s internal logic but, of course, the heroes arrive just in time to prevent the villain’s plan to conquer the universe from succeeding. Throughout all the action scenes, the chases, fights and escapes, the pace remains compelling, with each and every break perfectly timed. W.D. Richter, who wrote the original treatment, achieved a similar balancing act of wacky ideas in a headlong rush of narrative with his own cross-genre cult movie, The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai: Across The Eighth Dimension (1984).
Much of the criticism of Big Trouble emphasises the incompetence of Jack as a hero figure – but fails to recognise this was always the filmmakers’ intention, while simultaneously bemoaning the fact that Russell (having made an ironic ‘Clint Eastwood’ antihero impression as Snake Plissken in Carpenter’s Escape From New York/ and L.A. movies), takes on John Wayne’s swaggering manner. But Carpenter experiments with more than one kind of humour in this tale. In addition to parody and satire, there’s comic-strip surrealism in visual gags and a bumper pack of literary and cinematic references, from Alice In Wonderland to Beauty And The Beast and The Wizard Of Oz.
Finally, by engaging Lo Pan in a magical duel of wills (not unlike the climax of The Raven, 1963), Egg defeats the evil forces, helping Wang save his fiancée, and allowing Jack to get his stolen truck back. This struggle between devious wisdom and evil lust ultimately brings “order out of chaos” – a resolution in wholly keeping with the themes of defeating monstrous invaders, so typical of Carpenter’s auteur horror thrillers. And so, having given the ‘pillars of heaven’ a damn good shaking, Jack moves on. He doesn’t get the girl (though Gracie almost proposes to him), in fact he doesn’t even kiss her goodbye. Jack must fulfil the strict demands of his role as a Western loner. He has weathered three Storms, proving he can handle whatever comes his way. In Big Trouble, Jack has paid his dues… yes, “the cheque is in the mail.”
This long awaited two-disc DVD release features a letterbox version with Dolby digital 4.1 sound plus 11 subtitled languages. There’s a commentary with director and star (though Russell laughs too much!), scene access in 44 chapters, and neat animated menus. Disc Two has deleted scenes (46 minutes, though much of this material brackets previously unseen clips with familiar stuff) compiled from poor quality of work-prints and Betamax tapes, making-of featurette (seven minutes), film notes from the original press kit, filmed interview with visual f/x supervisor Richard Edlund complete with photo inserts (13 minutes), filmographies of stars and director, interactive reprints of in-depth magazine articles, extensive gallery of photos, three trailers, and a rare music video in which Carpenter sings the film’s theme with his band the Coupe de Villes.