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REVIEW: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

In a nutshell: On a brief stopover in San Francisco, long-distance trucker Jack Burton finds himself in over his head, caught in between a battle of good and evil supernatural forces in and around Chinatown.

Big Trouble in Little China is an odd beast. Originally written as Western, the film views Eastern mysticism through an American lens, including moments of both horror and slapstick. It’s lead, Jack Burton, to put it bluntly, is a self-deluded buffoon and in reality, actually the sidekick to Dennis Dun’s Wang. So it’s no surprise that the studio (20th Century Fox) struggled to work out how to market such a curiosity, with the film flopping on release.

Thankfully, the film has gained a cult classic status over the years because there’s much to enjoy. This is one of five collaborations between auteur John Carpenter and his favourite leading man Kurt Russell. Together they’ve given us some very different characters; iconic antihero Snake Plissken, cynical pilot MacReady from The Thing and some guy called Elvis Presley.

Jack Burton is a role Russell is clearly having a ball with and another reminder of how talented an actor he is, effortlessly jumping between genres. Kurt blunders around with a John Wayne swagger and drawl, stealing the majority of the best lines. However, it’s Dennis Dun’s who brings the physicality and heart as the honest hero, Wang.

“I’m a reasonable guy. But, I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things. “

Bring me the girl with the green eyes!

But the hero is only as good as his villain and Carpenter creates some imposing, twisted foes. On revisiting this film, I forgot how much of a joy, James Wong, as the villainous Lo Pan, is to watch. The man is an acting legend with close to 400 credits across film, TV, games and animation. Hong takes two guises, as the ethereal Lo Pan and withered old man Lo Pan, the latter making an impression that’s equal parts creepy, grumpy and amusing. 

Carpenter homages Eastern culture with Lo Pan’s muscle – The Three Storms; Thunder, Wind and Lightning. Much like Snake Plisken arguably inspiring Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid, Lo Pan and his henchmen are clear inspirations for classic Mortal Kombat characters, Shang Tsung and Raiden.

“And if we’re not back by dawn… call the President.”

Kudos to Carpenter for not bowing to a formulaic third act. Despite being juiced-up on a magic potion, our hero manages to knock himself unconscious for most of the final battle. Whilst Jack Burton does get to kill the big bad guy, at least we see him spectacularly fumble his first attempt at throwing a knife.

And what of the typical romance? Kim Cattrall may end up being the damsel in distress but she is her own woman, fending off most of Burton’s arrogant advances. It’s also a refreshing ending – whereas most 80s movies would end with the hero and love interest walking off into the sunset, our hero turns down Gracey and heads off back on the road, in the rain, alone (or is he?)

“It’s all in the reflexes”

It’s the lighting-in-a-bottle zaniness and charming performances that make this an enduring classic. Whilst it may not be Carpenter’s best film (for me, it’s The Thing), it’s probably the most fun and stands up to repeated viewings. Despite being a box office flop, it appears the film has paid its dues, yessir.

Coulda Woulda Shoulda: Jackie Chan was the first choice for Wang, but producers didn’t feel his English was good enough at the time.

Alternative Title: Kung Fu Russell

Would you like to know more? Check out our podcast review!

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