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Big Trouble in Little China


#491 - Big Trouble in Little China
John Carpenter, 1986



A trucker must help his friend rescue his fiancée from an ancient sorcerer who has taken up residence in San Francisco's Chinatown.

The mid-1980s marked an interesting shift for John Carpenter. After the commercial failure of The Thing and the modest success of Christine, he got the unlikely offer to direct Starman, a fairly respectable sci-fi road movie that earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar nomination. He followed that up with 1986's Big Trouble in Little China, which flopped and understandably made him disillusioned with Hollywood's filmmaking process. Of course, that didn't stop the film from becoming a beloved cult classic, and not without reason. It's almost on par with Starman when it comes to being the lightest and most ostensibly accessible film in the director's filmography, but even so much of its reputation rests on its bizarre genre-blending mix of action, comedy, martial arts, and low fantasy. This much is clear from the opening scene, a distant epilogue designed to set up protagonist Jack Burton (Carpenter stalwart Kurt Russell) as a capable and courageous hero who saved the day before mysteriously disappearing. Of course, this is supposed to be studio-mandated insurance against the actual truth of Burton; that he acts the confident, all-American hero throughout the film despite being outclassed in nearly every aspect (aside from his reflexes, of course). Despite that, it's a credit to Russell's outsized performance that the character comes across as a likeable fool rather than an irritating one, especially since he channels John Wayne in very much the same way that he channeled Clint Eastwood for Escape From New York.

Otherwise, the casting works very well for some generally great characters. Kim Cattrall makes for a good female lead as Gracie Law, who has sufficiently belligerent chemistry with Russell and sufficiently independent goals and motivations, while Dennis Dun as Burton's friend Wang Chi is good at portraying the right mix of the plucky sidekick's affable personality and the capable hero's day-saving prowess, to say nothing of his unflinching turn as a straight man to Russell's buffoonery. Veteran character actor James Hong all but steals the show here as chief villain Lo Pan, appearing as either an ancient old man in a wheelchair or a sharply-dressed spirit straight out of the Qin dynasty. His distinctive voice adds the appropriate level of humour or gravitas as the scene demands. Victor Wong provides a strong foil to Lo Pan as the unassuming Egg Shen, whose Chinatown tour bus is a front for his own earthy and benevolent type of sorcery. The rest of the cast is populated by a variety of characters with few weak links (for example, Kate Burton's turn as an intrepid reporter feels underdeveloped and more than a little contrived). That being said, I also can't go without mentioning the "Three Storms" (who appear to be modelled off the straw-hatted trio of assassins from the second Lone Wolf and Cub movie), who do get in their fair share of memorable moments.

The comedy on offer generally works, often at the expense at Jack Burton as he constantly finds himself in all sorts of unforgiving slapstick-like situations but is still willing to wisecrack about his ordeal to strong effect. The action stands out reasonably well with its emphasis on the exact kind of heavily choreographed and fantastic-looking martial arts that tend to involve physics-defying stuntwork and combat. Obviously, it's not quite on par with the kind of stuff that guys like Jackie Chan or Jet Li were doing around the same time, but it's still some pretty good work for a time when Hollywood hadn't quite cottoned on to the lucrative possibilities of martial arts films. Though the effects are arguably dated, they are dated in the best possible way with combinations of green-screen, stop-motion animation, and practical effects that look pretty fake (occasionally hilariously so, as is the case in one character's demise) but that's all just part of the charm. The same goes for the art direction (why does an ancient underground temple of doom have neon lights everywhere? Because it looks cool). Carpenter once again collaborates with Alan Howarth for the background score, which takes the pair's usual capacity for well-crafted synthesiser-heavy scores and combines it with Chinese influences. Big Trouble in Little China isn't quite the non-stop rollercoaster ride it wants to be, but it comes admirably close and ends up being one of the best films in John Carpenter's filmography. There's a dud moment here or there but not enough to significantly alter my opinion of the film, which is probably one of the most straight-up fun films in my collection.