The best action-comedy-fantasy-martial arts film ever made. It’s all in the reflexes.
Plot: Truck driver Jack Burton makes a stop off in San Francisco’s Chinatown only to be caught up in tale of magic and adventure when the green-eyed fiancée of his buddy Wang is kidnapped by Rain, Thunder and Lightning, the Three Storms and protectors of Lo Pan, an ancient sorcerer who is cursed to live life as a ghost unless he can marry a woman with green eyes….only Wang, warrior Egg Shen, plucky lawyer Gracie Law and (I almost forgot) Jack can save the day…
Of all the films John Carpenter made in his heyday, Big Trouble in Little China is definitely the most FUN. Apparently it was a great laugh to make, and that enthusiasm definitely transfers to the movie itself. A delightful combination of supernatural martial arts adventure and comedy, the film has virtually no plot but more than gets by thanks to the spirited performances, tongue-in-cheek script, great action and wild imagination. What lifts it considerably from most escapist entertainment from the time is the treatment of Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton. Oh, of course he’s posing on the poster with his gun and the damsel in distress draped around him, but in truth this ‘hero’ is borderline hopeless.
The real hero in the more conventional sense is really the character of Wang (Dennis Dun), who pulls off all the killer moves, gets the girl, understands what’s going on, has the genuine, serious motive to succeed and so on. Jack on the other hand, just wants his truck back to begin with, and he only tags along for journey for the sheer hell of it. Well, there is the matter of the lovely Gracie (Kim Cattrall), who also gets kidnapped and who also has green eyes and who he clearly has a thing for, but the film totally goes against the typical happy-ever-after coupling by having him turn her down in the penultimate scene. I used to really get frustrated at this ending – not in a ‘how dare the filmmakers betray my expectations, I want formula!’ kind of way, but in an ‘I can’t believe Jack did that! That’s Kim Cattrall! The Mannequin herself!’ I guess I was in love with her myself and was pissed-off that Kurt walked away. Still, it made for a stronger ending, less easy, less predictable. It makes sense for Jack not to get the girl, given how much the action hero archetype has been played around with up until now.
What’s great is that Carpenter and Russell don’t go overboard with this ‘incidental hero’ conceit – true, there are pratfalls he succumbs to, but they don’t milk it. Saying that, they do have a lot of fun undermining his machismo, say in the bit where Jack still has bright red lipstick smeared on his mouth after kissing Gracie and then has it stay there throughout his entire confrontation with the chief villain. Or when he’s wearing that silky blue kimono after the first big action sequence. Or when he and Wang are held prisoner – Jack is receiving invisible punches from Rain, and Jack says ‘why don’t you come over here and fight like a MAN?’ to which Rain produces a red ball from out of nowhere and sends it hurtling right into Jack’s gut.
Some of Jack’s incompetence borders on slapstick, but it always get a laugh, never a groan, and in a way, he represents us, the viewer. Jack’s the only one who double-takes at all the madness occurring around him, the only one who, as he puts it himself, is unsure about being expected to ‘buy all this shit’. Yet this isn’t a mockery of other cultures or anything like that – you can tell Carpenter bloody loves all this fantastical stuff and all the mythology, and that Jack’s John Wayne bravado counts for very little. Yet he also loves Jack too much to make him a simple figure of fun. He loves him, Kurt Russell clearly adores him and I rate him as one of the all-time offbeat action leads. After all, what’s better than the moment where the film counter-acts Jack’s biggest blunder in the whole movie by having him pull off probably the coolest, swiftest comeback in bad guy takedown in cinema history. Like he says, it’s all in the reflexes. You can accept Jack as a hero, it’s just that he’s not the same kind of hero that he himself thinks he is.
The acting is very enjoyable – there’s little else for me to add about Russell’s performance, except that along with Escape from New York it may be his definitive turn. Dun makes for an engaging sidekick/unofficial lead action hero, a little wooden at times admittedly, but full of energy nonetheless. Cattrall is quite delightful, approaching the role with an almost screwball-comedy turn. Then there are the bad guys – the Three Storms with their huge straw hats and spectacular powers, admittedly, Lightning doesn’t have much to do except produce – you guessed it – lightning, but Rain gets to have a spectacular aerial swordfight with Wang at the end, and as for Thunder? Well, he has the most fun – looking snappy in civilian attire and introducing his services in the most suspicious way possible. I mean, who actually laughs before insisting – ‘I can help you!’ like he does at one point? Someone who wants to cause pain, that’s who. Yet the good guys fall for it, so what do I know? He also gets to endure one of the all-time most insane death sequences in cinema history, when he becomes so frustrated at the death of his master that he actually inflates himself beyond bursting point, exploding and leaving behind what looks like a lot of rotten cabbage. The two shots where we see him fit to burst are utterly bonkers, unforgettable and quite hilarious. James Hong is terrific as Lo Pan – totally convincing (great make-up job) as a decrepit old man and as a mighty sorcerer, he nails great comedy and boo-hiss pantomime villainy down to a tee.
The dialogue is infinitely quotable – be it Jack’s swagger banter, Lo Pan’s excessive threats or the good guys’ straight-faced references to the ‘black blood of the earth’ and the ‘hell of the upside down sinners’, and all of that is made extra fantastic by the chemistry between all of the stars. Great dialogue is one thing, but there’s something about the way it’s delivered and shared is what gives this film that magic. Just like the underrated Ghostbusters II, this is a film where the actors look like they’re having a fantastic time just riffing off each other and loving the script they’ve been handed. Even the minor characters get to have fun. A good example of the good-time mood comes around near the end – just check out that bit in the lift after everybody’s had a glug of Egg Shen’s magic potion. I don’t know why, but this scene cracks me up!
The special effects are great. I mean that in the way that they’re seamless and they stick in the mind – was it just me, or did those shots of Lo Pan with the light coming out of his eyes and mouth look fantastic? They always put that shot of the first time he pulls that off in the adverts when I was younger. That’s not all – what about that floating head with eyes peeking out of every orifice? That shit’s crazy. By the way, the floating head acts as a kind of surveillance camera for Lo Pan – he sees what it sees. I don’t think he feels what it feels though, otherwise Lo Pan would have had a stinking head – Jack shoots the head in the cheek and Wang sticks a sword right between its eyes. Ouch. As much as I do want to make light of abuse to disembodied heads, the goofy noise it makes when it gets stabbed is quite hilarious. As for the make-up, well they really make Hong look as though he’s about two-hundred years old in the scenes where he’s just plain old David Lo Pan. That’s another thing, giving a two thousand plus year old ghost the prefix of ‘David’ always made me chuckle.
The action is terrific – proper smackdowns with the occasional touch of craziness. This all reaches a splendid apex with the showdown between heroic Egg Shen (Victor Wong, who is always worth watching) and Lo Pan, each of producing magic light that in itself produces a swordfight between two giant imaginary samurais. It’s utterly wild, and look at the way Lo Pan frenetically taps his fingers, it’s like he’s tapping the buttons of a control pad during a wired gaming session of Olympic Gold for the Sega Mega Drive.
Then there’s the music – Carpenter’s music is always worth anyone’s time, and this is another diamond score to add to the list. Then there’s the matter of the theme song. Let’s get one thing cleared up – this is one of the best things ever. I mean, it’s a ridiculously catchy song, especially when it gets going during that ‘we better run’ bridge, and it’s a work of personal genius, given that the lead singer is none other than John Carpenter himself, backed by Last Starfighter/The Boy Who Could Fly director/Michael Myers himself Nick Castle and Halloween III/It director Tommy Lee Wallace. What other films boast a theme song sung by its own director? In a band with his director mates? None! Saying that, the promo video for this is probably the most wonderfully embarrassing thing you’ll ever see. Find it, watch it, now.
Sadly, Big Trouble was a box office flop, despite excellent preview screenings – 20th Century Fox apparently didn’t know how to market it, as well as the fact that it come out in the middle of the commercial whirlwind generated by James Cameron’s Aliens. Harsh, but if you’re going to be destroyed at the box office by another film, it may as well be the Greatest Action Film/Blockbuster Ever Made. Also, there was another Chinese/Hollywood/Mystical adventure out that same year, which made much more money. However, for all its modest amusements, The Golden Child is but a miniscule fraction of the gem that Big Trouble in Little China is. Funnily enough, both films have a confrontation at an airport. Both star Victor Wong. That’s where the similarities end.
Despite featuring a relatively (for a Hollywood blockbuster) bittersweet ending, on the John Carpenter grim-o-meter scale, Big Trouble in Little China is easily the most joyous and grin-inducing film he has ever made. Seriously, Carpenter films, for all their cult brilliance, re-watch factor and guaranteed entertainment, are also quite dark, angry, sad and usually likely to end on a down note. Amongst this company, Big Trouble is a sugar rush of spectacle, hilarity and imagination. It really is one of the most fun films ever.
PS: I was quite surprised when I scanned the titles of my local video shop as a child and realised that Big Trouble in Little China was a ‘15’ rated film. I mean, this was a real early evening ITV mainstay, one that seemed so perfect for 10-14 year olds, and all of a sudden I wasn’t legally allowed to watch the bloody thing! In hindsight, I realise the film was probably snipped for those early screenings, but aside from a few bone breaks and that knife in the head shot (oh and of course the one use of ‘fuck’, seemingly obligatory in a 1980’s PG-13 film, to be used once and once only), this is most adventure-loving children’s idea of a perfect film. The BBFC seemed to concur with this, releasing the film with a ‘PG’ when it was at the cinemas, with only cut for the f-word. Weirdly, when the film was released on video as a ‘15’, the ‘fuck’ was put back in, but some of the violence in the Chinese standoff sequence was removed, despite it being seemingly appropriate for a PG on the big screen.