Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Dir. John Carpenter. Starring Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, Kim Cattrall

I think everything you need to know about the movie is abundantly clear from the name. Films are not usually catchy, but this one is; it uses abundant color, histrionic acting, and runaway dialogue so that you can’t help but get swept up in it. For about fifteen minutes, it seems like we might be asked to take Jack Burton (Russell) and his friend Wang (Dun) seriously. After fifteen minutes, there’s no doubt that we mustn’t. If we were to do so, then the hammy acting of our principals would have torpedoed the movie even before we came to the giant street fight between rival Chinese martial arts gangs who are then set upon by three seemingly invincible warriors (one of whom literally rides lightning to the ground) commanded by a giant ghostly figure who shoots light out of his eyes and mouth, all of which is presumably taking place in ’80s San Francisco. It’s all a touch confounding in the moment – Carpenter’s score with Alan Howarth is just fine, but it should be replaced with a loop of “What are those?!” in terms of fit – but it’s not the lead-up to something dense. The plot is as simple as “ghost requires green-eyed woman for wife to regain flesh,” but the trappings are bold and bawdy and, yeah, less culturally sensitive than we might have hoped for. (It’s worth noting that there’s no yellowface in this movie; Asian and Asian-American characters are played by Asians and Asian-Americans.) It’s very Western to assume that there is some profound secrecy hidden by the inhabitants of Chinatown; it’s very Hollywood to translate that to what must be miles of underground tunnels and hideous beasts underneath businesses and shops. The ending of the movie calls back one of those aforementioned monsters, and although it’s mostly a good gag, it also is a little unsettling. The world of ’80s Chinatown and the world of…whatever faux-Chinese mythology we’re using…are reality and fantasy, worlds which should not intersect and are not suited to one another. One person in the movie describes what’s down those warrens as being like Alice in Wonderland, and she’s not wrong, nor has she seen the half of it. Our protagonist has a hard time believing that the villain, when he reveals himself, is who he says he is. Alice has charmed readers and viewers for better than one hundred and fifty years by now, but part of the reason she does so is because as nonsensical and marvelous and threatening as that other world is, we don’t doubt she will come home. There is more kicking, punching, magic, and knife-throwing in the wonderland of Big Trouble in Little China, but it’s much the same feeling. Kurt Russell is gonna make it.

Although the movie is ludicrously fun throughout, I can see how it might pall on a repeat viewing. For one thing, even on the first go-round there’s something of The Hobbit in it. Just as Bilbo has to save the dwarfs from their plight about a zillion times, the sheer number of places that the gang has to escape from is a little self-defeating. “Let’s get out of here!” is the motto of the movie, and I can see how that repetition could absolutely wear on someone looking for anything new to happen. The martial arts scenes are fine but uninspiring, and there certainly are a lot of them. Some characters, like Margo the journalist (Kate Burton), appear and disappear with nary a word of explanation. I was actually a little more disappointed that we didn’t get more out of a bizarre spider-like creature that just eats someone, is scared off by some explosions, and is then never heard from again. The real joy of the movie is a cast which plays their parts in a mist of thorazine, for whom no hijink is too weird. Before drinking a potion which makes everyone “kind of invincible,” the following unbelievable exchange is swapped between two leads:

Wang: Here’s to the Army and Navy and the battles they have won. Here’s to America’s colors, the colors that never run.

Jack: May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.

What are you supposed to do with that besides goggle and laugh at it? I want to believe that was a line someone made up in rehearsal, but I would have no trouble believing that it was in the original script, either.

The film’s presumed protagonist is Jack Burton (Russell), a truck driver with unhinged confidence in himself and no good reason to have it. In a movie where everyone else uses their fists and feet, their swords and staffs, Burton’s most effective with a submachine gun. (This is debatable. In a moment of excitement he fires three rounds directly into the stonework above him, which of course falls on his head and conks him out for a minute.) His entire ethos is in a moment where he shoots down a person with the gun. Another character asks him if that’s the first person he’s “plugged.” Jack is indignant that anyone would accuse him of not having killed someone with firearms before. “Of course not!” the truck driver says dismissively. Jack Burton, Christlike, frequently offers claims of what Jack Burton would say or do if he were in some situation. Jack asks as many questions as a four-year-old, and while some of them are fair enough, many others are like a neon sign for his foolishness. (The improbably named Egg Shen, a low-key tour bus driving sorcerer played by Victor Wong, loses patience with his clueless charge at one point: “You were not brought upon this world to get it!”) More than one person notes that Jack is in good shape and is handy enough in a fight or a tight spot, but it’s his opposite number Gracie Law (Cattrall) who is significantly more intelligent. Like Russell and Dun, who play their parts like kids on a roller coaster, Cattrall talks fast and with utter conviction. Whether or not she’s actually much smarter than Jack is up for debate – she doesn’t seem a heck of a lot smarter than anyone else – but she certainly is meant to be the beauty to his buffoon. If nothing else the promise of Russell’s mullet and Cattrall’s perm coming together in a mystical sexual union adds energy to the plot, even if one could remove the romance entirely and still end up with a perfectly good movie, which is a fact the movie seems to have learned for itself. Jack is not known for maintaining lasting relationships with women, and although one character is scandalized that he won’t even kiss her goodbye, it’s the first time that Jack seems to recognize that there’s a failing in the persona of the “Pork Chop Express.”

The real hero of the movie is Wang, the restaurateur with surprising (and rapidly evolving) martial arts skills and love in his heart. The abduction of his fiancee, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) by forces serving Lo Pan (James Hong), is the stimulus for the film’s plot. His enthusiasm turns up to 11 – I realize how often I’m emphasizing this, but I’m honestly not sure I’m doing the actors’ gung ho performances justice – and by the end of the film he manages to defeat one of the special weather-themed warriors who had mowed through several martial arts types before. From the Coach Boone school of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Jack is Jerry (“tells the jokes”) and Wang is Dean (“sings the songs, and gets the girl”). The film treats Jack and Gracie’s courtship like a running gag. In one scene, Jack tells Gracie “stop rubbing your body up against mine…I can’t concentrate when you do that.” In another, the two of them share a kiss which ends with Jack getting an interesting lipstick-based pout on his mouth, which he will wear into the final confrontation with Lo Pan; having been abducted by the Orangutan from Hell, green-eyed Gracie has been prepared for a wedding with Lo Pan by way of the Chinese opera. Wang and Miao Yin, though they don’t get very much screen time together, are treated much more seriously, perhaps as seriously as any single element of the movie. They were childhood sweethearts, he explains to Jack, and they’ve always loved each other. His quest to win her back puts them at the heart of the plot, if not precisely at the heart of the movie’s focus, and it’s what the viewer pulls for throughout the film’s run.

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