Movie Review : Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
I'm probably one of the last eighties-born person in the world to have seen BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. I bought the DVD many months ago, planning to remedy the situation, but you know how it is. As long as you haven't watched this timeless piece of insanity, it's hard to see the appeal. It's a you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it kind of movie. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is another Kurt Russell/John Carpenter collaboration (the two worked so well together for the Snake Plissken pulp extravaganza) and it occupies an important place both in Carpenter's legacy and in pop culture. The reason is simple. They just don't do movies like this anymore. Hell, there are no other films like BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. That's why it's so good. It's a unique object of entertainment.
Our hero here is Jack Burton (Russell). He's a hard living trucker and the proud driver of the Pork Chop Express, on his route to San Francisco. Burton wins considerable money, gambling with his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) and decides to go pick up his girlfriend at the airport with him, so Wang won't skip on the payment (they are good buddies, after all). Mayhem ensues as his girlfriend Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) gets kidnapped by a Chinese street gang called The Lords of Death. Caught in the crossfire and still wanting his money, Burton follows the hoodlums into the heart of Chinatown where he is witness to a supernatural battle between the forces of good and evil. Oh and his truck gets stolen. So good ol' Jack Burton has to stay over for the night and sort this shit out.
There is no way in hell cocaine is responsible for this movie alone. It's way too fucked up for that. I suspect that somebody in the writing crew had bipolar personality disorder. The script sure has. One minute, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a gangster movie with street gang shoot rifles at each other in broad daylight *, then it's a wacky, family-rated adventure movie with rubber monsters and people running in every possible directions and sometimes it's a martial arts movie with elaborate fight scenes with grisly injuries and even deaths. Artistically speaking, it didn't make any sense, but it sure was enjoyable as hell. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA seemed blissfully ignorant at times and painfully self-aware at others **. Quite frankly, I have yet to make up my mind about it.
My guess is that Carpenter, Russell and everybody else involved said: "Fuck it, let's do the craziest, pulp adventure story we can come up with, considering the budget we have" and then ran with the idea. There is zero understanding of Chinese culture in the movie and yet Carpenter found a way to make this awesome. I laughed out loud at the neons and the cardboard skulls in what was supposed to be a religious sanctuary. There are long-winded, never-ending ceremonial scenes that will remind you of the 70s "Bruceploitation" movies. Chinese characters say multiple times they don't understand what the hell their myths are about and that they used not to believe in them. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA might be called racist by some, but it is in such a nice and charming way, you can't really be angry at it.
Nobody seems to know what they're doing and yet everything works. Kurt Russell is a brilliant hardboiled lead and that makes you wonder why he didn't try to promote the genre better. Whatever he does as Jack Burton has an aura about it. There is this amazing one-liner, he says at the end of the movie that has the only curse word in the entire script and he says it in such a casual style, it becomes quite powerful and stayed with the fans as one of their favorite Jack Burton quotes. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is cheap, insane, has identity issues and is thoroughly awesome. In other words, it doesn't give a fuck. It's a perfect film to introduce people to pulp fiction, to host drinking games and to cheer yourself when you're in a "everything sucks" mood. It's so good, you can do all three things in a single viewing.
* I don't know about you, but I thought it was hilarious that the Tec9 (or similar caliber gun. I'm not an expert of this shit) that Jack Burton was wielding, made this old, western six-shooter sound?
** There is this amazing moment, near the final showdown where Burton faces the bad guy with lipstick smeared all over his lips from kissing Kim Cattrall's character. I had to remind myself it wasn't blood and manage to find that hilarious. There are several moments where the movie deliberately fucks with the Hollywood conventions.