If you’re my age and grew up in the New York City area, you are probably familiar with Channel 5’s Drive-in Movie. Coming on Saturdays at 3PM, Drive-In Movie presented badly dubbed kung fu movies from the ’70s and ’80s. The State Theater in Jersey City did a good job presenting uncut versions of several kung-fu classics throughout my childhood and adolescence, introducing me to Jackie Chan and the Shaw Brothers, but Drive-In Movie was much cheaper. My cousins and I, all students of one form of martial arts or another, would gather around the TV and watch endless repeats of Master of the Flying Guillotine and The Five Deadly Venoms. That latter picture holds an irreplaceable spot in my heart; catch me on a good day and I’ll gleefully recreate all five Venom styles for you.
God, I’m such a kung-fu movie geek, which makes me the wrong person to do a piece on Big Trouble in Little China. This is a flawed movie, with a script whose story is best described as garbage. The movie makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I still can’t explain all the sorcery mumbo-jumbo or why the lead villain appears as both a decrepit old man and a ghost who can blind people with light from his mouth. I don’t understand how Kim Cattrall’s character is involved with its Chinatown heroes, nor how China’s main character, Jack Burton, is affiliated with Wang Chi, the character whose fiancée sends the film on its journey. Big Trouble in Little China is more than happy to lazily fall back on its special effects in lieu of anything coherent. With that said, there’s something about this movie…
Actually, there are several “somethings” about this movie that made revisiting it a pleasure, among them its 1940’s serial cliffhangers, wire-fu set pieces and art direction full of grungy sewers and magical palaces. Sandwiched in director John Carpenter’s oeuvre between the mainstream, Oscar nominated Starman and the unhinged WTF snoozer Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China welds together its director’s two biggest loves: Westerns and ghoulishness. In fact, the film started out as a Western, which would explain its John Wayne inspired hero, Jack Burton.
Played by Carpenter’s Robert De Niro, Kurt Russell (they made 5 films together), Burton has not only Wayne’s swagger but his exaggerated voice too. This loquacious truck driver opens the film rambling on about his life philosophy, referring to himself in the third person and splashing puddles of rain water on the camera lens with his truck tires. He is our hero, a slice of good ol’ boy American Apple Pie about to be thrust into an oven of exotic Asian mythology and magic. This being the ’80s, audiences expected Jack Burton to be a take-no-prisoners tough guy. This runs counter to Big Trouble in Little China’s intentions. Jack Burton is the quintessential Ugly American; he’s John Wayne redesigned as an idiot, and Russell plays him with an infectious, unashamed cluelessness. Big Trouble in Little China flopped because folks came looking for Ah-nuld and wound up with a man whose machismo causes him to knock himself out in the middle of the film’s fight-filled climax. Burton’s cult status is well earned.
Though it has enough martial arts action to warrant a place on Channel 5’s Drive-In Movie, Big Trouble in Little China belongs in the same bucket as another unfairly maligned 1986 mythical fantasy with a bad script, The Golden Child. Child even shares two actors with this film, Victor Wong and James Hong, and has a hero whose humor is a defense mechanism brought about by his disbelief in the magical events surrounding him. In Big Trouble, Hong plays the villain, Lo Pan, and Wong plays Egg Shen, the world’s foremost authority on Lo Pan. How Samantha from Sex and the City is involved with Egg Shen is unknown by me (I think she’s his lawyer?) but Jack winds up in the battle between Egg and Lo when he accompanies his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) to SFO to pick up Wang’s fiancée Miao Yin. Miao Yin has green eyes, an unusual natural trait for an Asian, which makes her desirable to Lo Pan. She is kidnapped by some Chinese gang members at the airport. They bring her to Lo Pan so he can sacrifice her in exchange for a younger body than the 200-year old one he currently inhabits.
Jack Burton couldn’t give a shit about this jade-eyed hottie, but he’s forced to after he abandons his truck during an altercation with several different gang members and the ghostly form of Lo Pan. Ghostface Lo Pan temporarily blinds Burton with his Dragon Breath after Burton runs him over, and the chase is on. Wang Chi wants his girl back, Burton wants his truck back, and both are in the custody of Lo Pan’s gang. With Egg Shen’s help, Burton and company descend into Lo Pan’s netherworld to retrieve what is rightfully theirs.
Now that we know of Lo Pan’s green eye fetish, Cattrall’s Gracie Law character has a purpose in the movie. She too has green eyes, and it’s just a matter of time before she gets snatched by Lo Pan. The special effect that kidnaps her is a cross between a Halloween ape-creature mask and Gossamer from Looney Tunes. Meanwhile, Burton encounters other disturbing looking creatures, responding to each with the same “What the hell is that?!” reaction the audience is having. These include a flying mass of eyeballs that serves as Lo Pan’s otherworldly surveillance camera, three martial artists who have wicker chair-like hats on their heads and blue lightning shooting from their hands, and Lo Pan himself, whose ghost looks like a reject from Cirque du Soleil in a kimono.
Burton knows he’s clueless, but refuses to acknowledge it. He’s skilled enough to be quite dangerous, but his bone-headed personality keeps making him the comic foil. This is Big Trouble’s biggest charm. Burton is a quotable hero (“It’s all in the reflexes” is the line I’ll always remember), but unlike most action heroes, he’s also the audience’s stand-in. When faced with all this magic, he’s in the same boat we’re in. It’s his confidence that keeps him going, and makes him heroic when everything is on the line. Carpenter stays true to the John Wayne mythos even while poking fun at it. At film’s end, Burton doesn’t even kiss Gracie Law goodbye before riding off into the sunset. Russell convinces us that it’s not necessary.
Watching Big Trouble in Little China 25 years after I first saw it, I felt the same way I did as a kid sitting through movies like Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires on the old Zenith floor model TV my aunt had, the one that had pliers for a channel knob and a relative for an antenna (“move to the left…ok the picture’s back! Hold still!”). I can’t make heads or tails of those movies either, but I’ve always enjoyed watching them. As an added bonus, Big Trouble in Little China has yet another superb score by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, which despite its synth-heavy ’80s style, adds a layer of menace that nicely offsets the film’s comic intentions.