Big Trouble in Little China (1986)


Like many people I remember 1986 for a great blockbuster movie by a guy with the initials J.C. - James Cameron.  It was Aliens, the sequel to Ridley Scott's low-budget 1979 haunted-house-on-a-spaceship film.  It was such a big deal that few people saw a movie by John Carpenter that years later would be just as respected, though it was a one of the year's major flops.  This was Big Trouble in Little China.

John Carpenter, of course, is one of the most well-respected horror directors, and he was still at his peak at this point.  His 1978 slasher film Halloween was a major hit, and he had been able to keep things going with the Kurt Russell vehicle Escape from New York.  Despite this success, and the fact that he was constantly improving (we'll set Christine aside), his follow-ups at the time were failures.  His 1982 remake of The Thing, regarded as a classic both in science fiction and horror failed, and the studio he was working for was getting impatient.  When this third outing with Russell failed, he went back to making independent films.

I will admit that when I first saw this movie I didn't care for it.  I was still a kid and it was advertised as having a bunch of monsters (the eye creature featured significantly), and when it didn't I was disappointed.  I also saw it chopped to bits on regular television, so that didn't help.  I think I saw it again years later, but it still didn't make an impact, largely because I think it was still at the time I had to watch films with the volume way down in the middle of the night.  So, getting a chance to finally enjoy it properly (and on the big screen, no less) was priceless.

While most of Carpenter's films have a build-up of some sort, Big Trouble in Little China is almost all action from the beginning.  Jack Burton roles into town in his semi to make a delivery in San Francisco's Chinatown and runs into his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun).  After a night of drinking and gambling he agrees to accompany Wang Chi to the airport to pick up his Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) who is arriving from China and is to be Wang Chi's bride.  The special thing about her is that she has green eyes, a rarity for Chinese women.

At the airport they meet reporter Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) who is there to pick up a friend arriving from China and make sure she doesn't fall into the hands of a Chinese street gang looking to kidnap freshly arrived girls for the local brothels.  Gracie quickly snatches up her friend, but Miao Yin is kidnapped.  Burton and Wang Chi pursue the abductors back into Chinatown, only to find themselves in the middle of a gang war between them and another local gang, which itself is interrupted by three warriors representing Thunder (Carter Wong), Rain (Peter Kwong) and Lightning (James Pax), as well as their boss Lo Pan (James Hong) who appears to be a ghost.

It turns out that Lo Pan has an interest in Miao Yin, as he needs to marry a green-eyed woman in order to regain his younger physical form, as he is immortal but trapped in the body of an old man.  When Jack, Gracie and Wang Chi attempt to rescue Miao Yin, the storms arrive and spirit her away to Lo Pan's hideout.  With the aid of Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a tour bus driver who is actually another sorcerer fighting on the side of good and trying to destroy Lo Pan forever, the group infiltrate Lo Pan's headquarters in an effort to save Miao Yin and prevent Lo Pan from ruling the universe.

I think one of the main problems that audiences originally had (and that the studio heads definitely had) was that Jack Burton is not a carbon copy of Snake Plisken.  Early on, in the airport, it is established that Burton is rather ineffectual as a fighter, though he likes to run his mouth a lot.  This is intentional as we are viewing the entire story from the point of view of a bumbling sidekick.  Wang Chi is the one mentored by Egg Shen, is the one who has the big action sequences and is the one who eventually gets the girl (although Burton kind of does as well).

As for the monsters - well, there are more than I remember.  Things dwelling in the sewers of San Francisco as well as a Chinese demon Lo Pan has hanging around in addition to his eye creature, which largely serves as a closed-circuit television.  James Hong makes a great villain, but the storms themselves get in on most of the action (hard to do things yourself when you're either in a wheelchair or non-corporeal).  It is with them that we get most of the special effect work and, just like in The Thing, it still looks great.

Also, like The Thing, initial box office returns didn't predict how this movie would be viewed throughout the years.  Big Trouble in Little China is now considered one of the best action films of the 1980s, and rightly so.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Time: 99 minutes
Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong
Director: John Carpenter


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