Movie of the Week: Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

John Carpenter directs Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun and Kim Cattrall in this supernatural action comedy where a blowhard truck driver helps his Chinese friend rescue a beautiful girl with green eyes from a cursed immortal.

Anyone who watched Everything Everywhere All at Once this summer will have been glad to have seen the prominent return of James Hong. I say “return” in a guarded tone as he has been unofficially racing against Danny Trejo and Eric Roberts for the malleable title of most prolific Hollywood actor. James Hong has been churning out work in projects small, massive and indifferent. He’s just struggled to find a part quite as iconic as pissy immortal Dave Lo Pan. At least co-stars Dennis Dun and Victor Wong moved onto working in the majestic Oscar winning The Last Emperor straight after making this kooky Eastern flavoured adventure flop. James Hong steals the movie out from under star Kurt Russell. While the always loveable Kurt is doing his best John Wayne in a baseball cap pastiche, James Hong is doing something quite rare. A big bad who is all-powerful yet inept, nasty yet bitchy, spooky yet recognisably human. An absolute hoot.

And protected by quite the cavalcade of henchmen / beings. The Three Storms are the obvious standout. Thunder, Rain and Lightning in their big wicker birdcage hats, their weather related powers explicit even when they are in modern day drag. Add to that a feral sewer beast that looks like fire sale Chewbacca and a floating all-seeing eye monster, whose every surface is either globulous fat or aqueous eyeballs, and you have a range of potential action figures so gnarly and impressive that I still want to collect them. What this all means is an adventure comedy teeming with personified danger. Every new hell our heroes enter, every next door they knock down in their “rescue the princess” quest marvels. Each scenes contains a new shock, a quirky SFX to delight, a well realised design to blow a young boy’s mind. Glowing heads, drifting through walls, whatever lives in that hole below San Francisco.

Chinese Black Magic! Eighties visual lightning. There’s definitely a case that a group of white boys have plundered the Hong Kong supernatural comedy iconography. Plundered everything they know will sizzle the unprepared retinas of suburban audiences. Much like Temple Of Doom, this appears on a surface level like Hollywood exoticism at its most exploitative. That’s the accusation. I don’t agree with it. Unlike Temple Of Doom, the natives aren’t presented as inept, begging or monstrous. The British Empire doesn’t rock up and save the day. There’s no cultural imperialism here. The action in BTILC compared to TOD is goofy and constant. The scale smaller but that allows for everyone on the side of good to have their heroic moments. After all they are the immigrants here, not the set dressing. It helps that the setting is actually western and contemporary. No matter what layer of craziness we travel down or up into, we know the eggshell around it all is the familiar cityscape of a U.S. city. In fact there’s kind of an oxygen rush thrill in the final moments when we snap back into a world of automobiles, billboards and sidewalks in the frantic dash of escape.

And I’m not ragging on Spielberg’s Temple Of Doom (a movie I love so much I can just overlook its dated issues), but that is a period piece, a white saviour narrative and a throwback to adventure movies of Hollywood old. White man’s stories of the Raj reprocessed by wunderkinds with unlimited finances. Carpenter’s Big Trouble is more a love letter to another culture’s low art. An affectionate repackaging of actual Chinese action and horror, polished up for the world market. For the film’s many fight scenes John Carpenter worked with martial arts choreographer James Lew, who planned every scene in detail. Carpenter stated, “I used every cheap gag – trampolines, wires, reverse movements, and upside down sets. It was much like photographing a dance.”

And without getting too deep into “The Hell Of The Woke ReAppraisal” there’s sort of a point to all the orientalism which the short sighted find offensive. The Chinese-Americans in the movie live in a world (and an underworld) marinated in lore, tradition, culture and mythology. The three prominent white Americans are the outsiders, the other, pointedly lacking a developed culture. Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton is without mythology. Sure he talks “American” but his Japanese logo vest, his Spanish cavalry boots and Peruvian sweatshirt all suggest a soul without bearings. His background is pic’n’mix. The anti-union, anti-marriage, anti-corporation swagger he projects as a philosophy is resistant of what few traditions WASP Americans have. He’s a cowboy without a horse, a warrior without a war, a coward without a fight or flight impulse, a heterosexual who avoids the company of women and a pioneer who has reached the ends of the Earth… California…. There’s no more West left. We all know the first draft of the script was set in the Wild West.

Is it a hangover from that early version that all Jack cares about is the dollar. He pushes back against systems of modernity, domesticity and comfort. He expects nothing from the insurance company over the phone. He is primed and ready for the excuse they’ll give for not paying up. “Don’t give me any of that Act Of God crap either!” When the time comes to be a hero he talks a good game. He’s a strong proponent of American exceptionalism. He’s just not a workable example of it. Clumsy, entitled, and rarely aware. When the plot is being laid out to us in a stream of exposition, Jack’s on the phone blustering to an insurance agency he already knows won’t pay his claim. He’s introduced to us gabbling down a CB radio to nobody. He gambles better at the Chinese’s game than he does as an American entrepreneur. He’s a soul searching for something authentic, and you kinda know he ain’t going to find that among his kind. So is he a traditional “white saviour”… not by any real stripe. He comically knocks himself out just as the big culminating melee begins.

Kim Cattrall is more of your traditional meddling do-gooder. Her honky bleeding heart lawyer is openly dismissed as trouble by the Chinatown locals. She even introduces herself like a fusty over earnest 1940’s cliffhanger heroine. More Nancy Drew or Lois Lane than a realistic adult who might offer a solution to the crazy old world dangers we are imperilled by. She does however look wonderful, has an abrasive chemistry with Russell. Their relationship is an intentional foul ball in a movie aching to marry Hawksian directness with shaking the audience out of their safe zone. Carpenter relishes pulling the rug from under us, for just about every cliche he sets up. It is a comfort movie that keeps you constantly on your toes.

The film was infamously released in the midst of studio stablemate Aliens (1986) big ramp up. Fox allegedly pumped all their resources into the guaranteed hit sequel which was released just sixteen days afterwards. However, Big Trouble went on to be a huge cult hit through VHS rental market. Carpenter and Russell felt that the reason the studio did little to promote the film, was because they simply didn’t know how to promote it. Aliens tested perfectly with audiences, was an easy sell. Big Trouble had to create and sell a whole new world for Americans, with a hero who wasn’t really the hero and tone closer to Ghostbusters than Indiana Jones. The marketing department gave up and this proved to be Catpenter’s last studio movie of his most fertile decade.

Too me it is a beloved treasure, there’s a parallel universe where it became the biggest movie ever at the box office. Sure, I know it is scrappier and less slick than Spielberg or Romancing the Stone. But it set my imagination tingling as a child. I pretty much spent my formative years bouncing around on the couch re-enacting movies taped off TV. Setting up the traps in Predator. Turning off the nuclear bomb in Broken Arrow. Catching and throwing a knife into evil Lo Pan’s head. “It’s all in the reflexes.” I’ve written so many big words defending this silly movie. Big words trying to draw out what makes it special. But it really just is an affectionately made entertainment. Over-the-top yet handcrafted. Don’t believe me check out the utterly daft, utterly shameless, utterly toe-tapping theme tune at the end. Recorded by John Carpenter and his regular collaborators themselves. No need for Berlin or Roxette in this crazy little universe.


Perfect Double Bill: The Golden Child (1986)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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