John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is an over-the-top, action-packed thrill ride, filled with hilarious one-liners and an absurdly ridiculous plot. This cult classic is chock full of perfect 80s awesomeness, and not in the cheesy, nauseating way. This movie has Kurt Russell at his best, and taking into account my deep and passionate love for The Thing (1982), another fantastic Carpenter-Russell team up, I seriously cannot believe it took me so long to see this movie.
Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) agrees to take his friend Wang (Dennis Dun) to the airport to pick up his fiance, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), who is arriving from China. When Jack is distracted by attractive lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrell), Wang’s bride-to-be is kidnapped by Chinese thugs. The chase to get Miao back submerges Jack, Wang and Gracie into a supernatural battle of good and evil. Miao has been taken by the immortal Lo Pan (James Hong) and his posse, The Three Storms. She is quite a desirable beauty because of her green eyes, a physical attribute that, with the act of marriage, could return Lo Pan to his physical form. The trio must save her before Lo Pan seals the deal.
Big Trouble in Little China is a visual treat, walking that careful balance between super cheesy graphics and exceptional visual effects without ever tumbling to either end. While they have become a little less impressive with time, the visual effects were top-notch back in the 1980s, and manage to age much better than most.
For instance, blue light and lightning that pour forth from Lo Pan’s eyes and The Three Storms are pretty impressive for the time. In fact, the Three Storms are so iconic that I knew I’d already seen it all somewhere before, and couldn’t help but scream “RAIDEN!” when they first popped up on screen. Imagine my delighted surprise to discover that their straw lampshade hats and lightning powers inspired that character in the classic Mortal Kombat fighter, and that Lo Pan also served as the inspiration for that series’ character, Shang Tsung. The set design in Big Trouble is also pretty noteworthy, as San Francisco’s Chinatown is true to life as it is crowded with people, shops and trinkets. Even the less savory areas are done well, as the Boss’ lair, and the sewers in which our heroes travel, are dirty, creepy and very claustrophobic.
While it’s no surprise that Big Trouble in Little China didn’t win any Oscars, that doesn’t change that fact that it is a seriously fun film. It starts fast and never lets up with quick one-liners, almost giving it an air of screwball comedy. John Carpenter is not trying to be serious: he knows he is making a ridiculous movie and he just goes with it. What really helps carry that ridiculousness along is Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton, who Carpenter hoped would be seen as a John Wayne type; Russell’s portrayal instead made him seem like a bumbling Indiana Jones, and the film was all the better for it. He is streetwise to the point of stupidity, and you find yourself wondering who trusted this guy with a gun. Though it all sounds like a recipe for a flop — which it unfortunately was at the box office, bringing in less than half its budget — Big Trouble’s obnoxious screenplay demands obnoxious characters, and it all fits together so well.
I had a blast watching Big Trouble in Little China, as I spent the majority of the time with a huge smile on my face. When it was over, I asked myself what took me so long to see it. This movie wasn’t even remotely on my radar, so I’m so grateful that it was part of my challenge; I don’t know when I would have seen it otherwise. If you are looking for a fun action flick, look no further than this one.
Big Trouble in Little China landed at #239 out of 1353 movies on my Flickchart. That converts to a rating of 4 out of 5 stars or 82%. It is ranked 29th out of 142 movies I have seen from the 1980’s, and is ranked #10 out of 17 movies I have seen so far in this challenge.