John Carpenter famously commented, “In France, I’m an auteur; in Germany, a filmmaker; in Britain, a genre director; and in the USA, a bum.” Or as another J.C. put it, a prophet is never without honor, save in his own country. Carpenter may have understated his following: He has under his belt one undisputed masterpiece, Halloween, and a handful of films that were initially received with scorn or indifference and are now certifiable cult classics—including Escape from New York, The Thing, and his Summer of ’86 film Big Trouble in Little China.
In 1986 I wrote that this tongue-in-cheek fantasy thriller with arch wit and giddy pace was the most underrated film of the year, and I’m pleased that the years seem to have borne me out in their kindness to Big Trouble in Little China. The film pits a seedy truck driver—a sort of urban, subterranean, blue-collar Indiana Jones—against a centuries-old malevolent warlord for possession of not one but two green-eyed ladies. A good old-fashioned big dumb adventure movie, so skillfully made as to eradicate the “dumb” part, and better than the Indiana Jones films in that its fast-paced high action absorbs you rather than simply wearing you out.
If Halloween showcases Carpenter’s mastery of frame composition and camera movement, Big Trouble in Little China does the same for his sense of montage. The film captures us from the beginning with its rhythm, its momentum, the kinesis of its exhilarating constant forward movement. It is a case of style perfectly matched to content, a narrative of dark cosmic disruption and the struggle to move, as one character says, from chaos into order.
Big Trouble in Little China pokes fun at the xenophobia and racial stereotyping that lie at the heart of pulp literature’s tradition of the evil exotic (most memorably embodied in Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu), at the conventions and gestures of the martial arts genre, at the clichés of the fantasy film, and at itself. It does this not only through plot and dialogue but by giving great roles to wonderful actors like James Hong, Victor Wong, Chao Li-chi, and Denis Dun, who not only do solid work, but rise to the opportunity to mock the ethnic stereotyping that characterized the roles they were more often called upon to play.
The martial arts genre was not widely known to American audiences then. More people knew Bruce Lee’s name than saw his movies, and more people went to Big Trouble in Little China than were likely to have understood all that Carpenter was getting at. In fact, Carpenter’s film helped build interest in that most Asian of film genres years before Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Ang Lee created a 21st-century U.S. market for it.
The thing that most makes Big Trouble in Little China special is its sense of humor, its homely, graceful blending of comedy with martial arts, action, suspense, horror, and science-fiction. Dark wit is plentiful in Carpenter’s world, but outright humor is rare (the only other Carpenter film that seems to qualify is Dark Star). More than a little of the credit is due to co-scenarist W.D. Richter, himself the director of that genre-bending cult hybrid of comedy, western, science-fiction, and crime-fantasy, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984).
But of greatest importance is the presence of lead actor Kurt Russell, who has a facility for comedy, and brought a measure of it to Escape from New York (and later to its goofier sequel, Escape from L.A.). Russell—The Thing notwithstanding—seems generally not to take his characters as seriously as they want to take themselves, and to embrace a sense of self-deflating humor in most of his characterizations. But pace, Snake Plissken—Jack Burton is Russell’s and Carpenter’s finest creation: never quite knowing where he is or what’s going on, but born ready (both the line and the performance are indebted to John Wayne in Hondo), and, despite his constant complaining, accepting every uncertain, threatening, or downright hopeless undertaking with something like joy. As he frees a group of hostages held in David Lo Pan’s dungeons, one of them asks him, “How are you going to get us out of here?” He cheerfully replies, “I have no idea”—and it doesn’t slow him down for one instant. Firing off his automatic pistol from sheer (drug-induced) enthusiasm for combat, he blows a hole in the ceiling and the falling plaster cold-cocks him, causing him to miss a good part of the action. When he comes to the rescue of his reluctant girlfriend, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), she kisses him, and he plays the remainder of the scene with his machismo undercut by the ridiculous smear of lipstick across his face.
You might call Big Trouble in Little China a celebration of heroism in spite of itself. It laughs at its hero, but recognizes that he is a hero nonetheless—in fact, possibly all the more a hero because laughable.
In the Summer of ’86 one movie shook the pillars of heaven, and they’re still vibrating 25 years later.
Robert C. Cumbow, author of books on John Carpenter and Sergio Leone, also contributed to our “Summer of ’85” series. His home base is the Seattle film blog The Parallax View, where much of his 40 years of film writing is archived.