John Carpenter has had a very up-and-down career as a director, or at least it has been very up-and-down in commercial terms. Big Trouble in Little China, an over-the-top action adventure romp, was certainly a commercial low point. Like so many of his commercial failures it has attracted a loyal cult following.
Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is a truck driver. He finds himself propelled into a world of black magic and mayhem when the fiancée of his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is snatched at San Francisco Airport by a Chinese gang.
Jack has the kind of experience that Alice had after going down that rabbit hole. Suddenly he’s in a bizarre world beneath San Francisco’s Chinatown, a world of monsters, magic and sorcery. This world is dominated by David Lo Pan (James Hong), an evil sorcerer who as a result of a curse has been trapped in a strange undead incorporeal state for more than two thousand years. To escape the curse he needs to marry a girl with green eyes. Wang Chi’s girlfriend happens to have green eyes. But there is another girl with green eyes, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), who also has green eyes and she’s mixed up in this situation as well.
Jack doesn’t understand any of this but he’s the kind of guy who never runs away from a fight.
Things get stranger and stranger. There is a whole world beneath Chinatown, a world in which an epic battle between good and evil must be played out. Warring Chinese gangs fighting it out in the streets with machine-guns are one thing but beneath Chinatown black magic is by far the bigger threat.
The big twist is that Jack Burton thinks he is the hero but he isn’t. He’s the sidekick. Wang Chi is the hero. Wang Chi knows what’s going on; Jack doesn’t have a clue. It’s not that Jack is stupid. Maybe he’s not a intellectual giant but he’s not a fool. He’s simply completely out of his depth. He tries his best to play the hero but it doesn’t really work.
Not that Wang Chi isn’t grateful for Jack’s help. Jack might not have much experience battling evil sorcerers but he’s brave and he’s loyal. He’s the ideal sidekick in fact. Of course Jack still thinks he’s the actual hero.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this movie is that every member of the cast understands the type of movie this is. They all understand what Carpenter is trying to do. And they all produce exactly the right kinds of performances. The performances are slightly tongue-in-cheek, but not in a sneering or condescending way.
Kurt Russell is quite superb. He has the square-jawed action hero persona which contrasts delightfully with Jack’s total unawareness of his own inadequacies. He’s funny but he never allows his performance to descend into outright parody. We might be amused by Jack but we never despise him. Wang Chi never despises him either - he appreciates the fact that Jack is risking his life in order to fight beside him against Lo Pan.
Kim Cattrall is delightful. She’s no shrinking violet, she’s quite feisty but she’s not a clichéd kickass action heroine. She’s pretty terrified but she’s determined not to give up. Cattrall is funny too and she combines superbly with Kurt Russell. James Hong is an absolutely splendid villain. He’s thoroughly evil but perhaps just a tiny bit tragic. Victor Wong is wonderfully amusing as the tour bus driver Egg Shen who knows a bit more about fighting black magic than you might expect from a tour bus drive.
The action set-pieces are crazy and spectacular. Carpenter was clearly pretty familiar with Hong Kong action movies and captures the feel of that genre perfectly whilst still giving the movie his own distinctive signature.
The Region B Blu-Ray includes an audio commentary by Carpenter and Kurt Russell which is almost as much fun as the movie. They’re obviously great friends and they obviously had a blast making the movie and their enthusiasm for it is infectious. They get very chatty but there’s plenty of fascinating background on the movie as well. The Blu-Ray looks magnificent.
John Carpenter is a director who has never really achieved either the commercial success or the recognition he deserves. That’s possibly because rather than playing safe he chose to do idiosyncratic movies like this one. It’s easy to see why Big Trouble in Little China bombed at the box office. In 1986 studio executives would have had no idea how to market such a movie and mainstream critics would have been bamboozled by it. It appears that the studio solved the problem by not promoting the movie at all.
In spite of this Big Trouble in Little China is enormous fun. Highly recommended.