Big Trouble in Little China

Year 1986

Kurt Russell as  Jack Burton
James Hong  as Lo Pan
Victor Wong  as Egg Shen
Dennis Dun  as Wang Chi
Suzee Pai as Miao Yin
Kim Cattrall  as Gracie Law
Jerry Hardin as Pinstripe Lawyer 
Director - John Carpenter
Screenwriter - John Carpenter   


Pop quiz! Name one of the most successful director/actor teams from the eighties. No, not Scorsese and DeNiro, who only worked on two movies in the eighties. You forgot about John Carpenter and Kurt Russell who did three.

Think about it...

Escape from New York in 1981, The Thing in 1982, and (yes) Big Trouble in Little China in 1986. Both the actor and director were at their peaks and full of self-assurance during this time and one of the results was this movie.

It's amazing to me that so many people who say that they are Kurt Russell fans have not seen this movie. Oh, I see where it gets low marks on critics' scales so maybe that's one of the reasons that it's been overlooked. It probably disappointed those that wanted to see another Escape or Thing. But for me, it captured the exuberance of both men in a tongue and cheek manner that makes it fresh even when I've seen it for the dozenth time.

I have to admit that I didn't like it at first. I thought, "Kurt Russell can't act and John Carpenter's lost his touch." But, someone told me to look at it as a deliberate case of hamminess and foolishness. With that frame of mind, the movie hooked me.

The plot of the movie is simple enough, I guess. Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is a truck driver with more bravado than brains. His delivery of goods to San Francisco ends with an all night dominoes session. He wins money, but the person who owes him the money, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), needs to go home to get it. But before that, Wang needs to go to the airport to meet his arriving fianceť Miao Yin (Suzee Pai). Rather than be bilked out of the money by a "forgetful" Wang, Jack Burton goes with him.

The bride is kidnapped and Jack Burton decides to help get her back. Then, Jack's truck is stolen during the rescue and suddenly (drumroll, please) it's personal.

The abductor is a thousand year old wizard named Lo Pan (James Hong) who needs to marry a girl with green eyes, which Miao Yin has. The heroes Jack and Wang have an ally in Egg Shen (Victor Wong) a magician who's also owns and operates a one vehicle, second rate tour bus company.

The silly lines are fast and furious.

Jack calling his insurance company to report the theft of his truck: I'm gonna tell you about an accident, and I don't wanna hear "act of God".
Jack Burton: Everybody relax. I'm here.
Jack Burton: You know what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like this?
Thunder: Who?
Jack Burton: Jack Burton. Me!
Jack Burton: Somebody, I don't care who, better tell me what's going on.
Jack Burton after nearly being run over: Son of a b**** must pay.
Jack Burton: When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if you've paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that. "Have you paid your dues, Jack?" <pause> Yes, sir. The check is in the mail.
Jack Burton: Like I told my last wife. I says, "Honey, I never drive faster than I can see."
Jack Burton: Okay. You people sit tight, hold the fort, and keep the home fires burning. And if we're not back by dawn... call the President.
Jack Burton explaining the obvious: What's in the flask, Egg? Magic potion?
Egg Shen: Yeah.
Jack Burton: Thought so, good. What do we do, drink it?
Egg Shen: Yeah.
Jack Burton: Good. Thought so.
Jack Burton: That's not water
Egg Shen: Black blood of the Earth.
Jack Burton: Do you mean oil?
Egg Shen: I mean black blood of the Earth!

Egg Shen: It will come out no more!
Jack Burton: What? Huh? What'll come out no more?
Jack Burton: Frankly, I don't get it.
Lo Pan: You were not put upon this earth to "get it", Mr. Burton.

There obviously wasn't a diction coach on this movie, and the Chinese accent is occassionally deliberately exaggerated for laughs. This may offend some (like those who think a talking, stuttering, cartoon pig is somehow based in reality), but I thought it was harmless. For example, it definitely takes the edge off of a sinister death threat.

Chinese sayings get a friendly ribbing as well. For example, there is one scene when Jack and Egg fight for ownership of an umbrella in the rain.
Wang Chi: A brave man likes the feel of nature on his face, Jack.
Egg Shen: Yeah, and a wise man has enough sense to get in out of the rain.

The music and score are by John Carpenter. I happen to like his music. Somehow he managed to combine techo, Broadway, and Oriental influences. Whether he's in a serious mode composing the score or in a parody mode writing the Jefferson Starship sounding closing song. the music always has that John Carpenter touch.

A lot of scenes receive special one to two second cut shots that add a level of professionalism to the production. For example, when Wang's fianceť is kidnapped and the thugs attempt to run down Jack Burton as they make their getaway, most movies would show the car coming, someone jumping out of the way, and the car leaving.

In this movie, while the car is coming, there's a switch to a view from inside of the car as if the camera is in the dashboard. The two kidnappers in very dark glasses can be seen in the front seat and the kidnapped girl in the back. Even better is the techno-style music. But better yet is the fact that all of the characters are being jostled as if the car is riding over pavement. The effort that went into that two second scene elevates the minutes that bookend it.

As for the lair of the thousand year old villain, it's decked out in...neon? Neon! Campy, but it fits.

The battle royale is some martial arts, some bullets, and some "magic". Wang and one of the henchmen leap into the air to battle with swords. Ten seconds later, their "jump" finishes. Nice exaggeration. Jack Burton, the only one in the melee with the gun, knocks himself out at the beginning of the fight and is unconscious through a lot of it. The individual match between Egg and Lo Pan looks more like a computer battle than a battle of wizards. Both men mimick using a console pad to control their magical warriors. It definitely works as a joke because it's not belabored.

And when Jack Burton passes up his chance at living happily ever after, his excuse for leaving the girl is, "Sooner or later I rub everyone the wrong way."

Great deliveries of lines by Kurt Russell, James Hong, and Victor Wong keep the movie from losing steam. Special effects are often weak but hit the right level for a deliberately campy movie. Weaknesses are a lack of character development, any level of suspense, and some bad acting from Dennis Dun. (He tries, but he can't match the effortlessness of Russell, Hong, and Wong.)

If a movie has James Hong in it, I'll probably watch it because he's always entertaining.

So, why watch it more than once? Well, I don't mean watch it repeatedly in one week. Rather, it's one of those movies to pop in when you can't decide what fits your mood. When you see it this way, no more than once or twice a year, it gets funnier with every viewing.

Is it a chick flick? No. To be a chick flick, either a guy has to be degraded and humiliated and only through the grace of an average female can he be redeemed or he has to have suffered at the hands of a woman and lost. That doesn't happen in this movie.

Can you watch it with date? Sure, if she has a sense of humor. It also has Kurt Russell when he was younger, running around in a "muscle shirt" and rescuing maidens in distress. Even if her sense of humor's a bit weak, there's got to be something in that last part to keep her interested.

As for blasphemy, there're a couple of instances but the "My God" spots are rare.

Back to the "More Than Once" list or the main movie list.