Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Film Appreciation - It's All in the Reflexes

Film Appreciation experiences some very unreasonable things as Cody Hamman writes about John Carpenter's 1986 martial arts action/comedy Big Trouble in Little China.

A modernized Western (literally, the first draft of the script was set at the turn of the 20th century), Big Trouble in Little China begins with the cowboy, here truck driver Jack Burton, rolling into Chinatown at the wheel of his big rig The Pork Chop Express. He makes his delivery and meets up with his old pal Wang Chi, accompanying him to the airport, where Wang is to meet his green-eyed fiancee Miao Yin. But almost as soon as Miao gets off the plane, she's kidnapped by a street gang and whisked away, with Jack and Wang in pursuit. This pursuit lands the Pork Chop Express right in the middle of an alley fight between two rival societies and Jack is quickly completely out of his element and in over his head as things take a mystical turn.

Led by cursed two-thousand-year-old sorcerer Lo Pan, and aided by "The Three Storms", men with powers like the ability to fly, control wind and rain, and zap people with lightning, the evil Wing Kong group take Miao because her unusual green eyes make her the special girl who, when Lo Pan marries her, will cause him to be restored to his full, youthful, flesh and blood self. Eventually, Jack and Wang have to team with tour bus driver Egg Shen and Wing Kong's rivals the Chang Sing to raid Lo Pan's underground world of magic and monsters.

Already an established master of horror and suspense, director John Carpenter here proved to be quite capable at directing martial arts battles, and the film is packed with action. Carpenter also composed the music with an assist from Alan Howarth and performed the film's theme song with his band The Coupe de Villes (his bandmates were his frequent film collaborators Tommy Lee Wallace and one time Michael Myers Nick Castle, both of whom are also directors).

The film's dialogue is great, delivered at a His Girl Friday pace in some scenes (Carpenter being a huge fan of Howard Hawks), and often funny and quotable, especially lines delivered by Jack Burton.

This was Carpenter and star Kurt Russell's fourth film together, having previously worked together on Elvis (1979), Escape from New York (1981), and The Thing (1982). In a career full of great performances, Jack Burton stands out as one of Kurt Russell's best and most entertaining. Full of John Wayne swagger and braggadocio, Jack is a clearly a hero in his own mind, and he makes the attempt to be one in reality, carrying the film like the hero... Unfortunately for him, but hilariously for the viewer, Jack is actually a clueless klutz who accidentally misses out on some of the biggest fights in the film.

His buddy Wang, played by Dennis Dun, is actually the more capable hero-in-practice of the two. The rest of the cast includes James Hong, giving a very memorable performance as Lo Pan, the always enjoyable to watch Victor Wong as Egg Shen, and Kim Cattrall as Jack's pseudo-love interest Gracie, who also ends up in the villain's clutches over the course of the film.

Fifteen years after Big Trouble in Little China came out theatrically, while listening to Carpenter and Russell's very enjoyable audio commentary on the DVD, I found out that the film had been a box office disappointment. I didn't see Big Trouble in the theatre myself, but I had no idea that it hadn't been a success. Apparently Kurt Russell's career was a bit rocky in the '80s, in my house he was one of the most popular actors working. Just going by how well this movie went over on video and cable in my household, I would've figured it was one of the biggest hits of the '80s. It was watched often and enjoyed by several members of my family.

I can clearly remember watching Big Trouble on movie channels with my parents, my father cackling at Jack's exploits. I remember watching it with my older brother and proudly showing him that I could quickly raise my eyebrows just like Wang does in the middle of a fight scene.

I was like four or five years old at the time, that was cool stuff. The film in general was cool stuff to me, the strange creatures and supernatural powers on display really appealed to me...

And it all continues to appeal to me, almost twenty-five years later. Big Trouble in Little China is a really entertaining film, a high point in the careers of all involved. It may not have been successful at first, but it's definitely found its audience since and stood the test of time, and that's what really counts.


  1. Great Write-up! Big Trouble in Little China is a classic! Plus the title song by the Coupe De Villes is catchy.

  2. In Brazil, this movie is called "AVENTUREIROS DO BAIRRO PROIBIDO", someting like "ADVENTURERS OF PROHIBITED NEIGHBORHOOD", and it is one of most famous "beat'em ups" movies ever made!