Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I review John Carpenter’s 80’s fantasy adventure Big Trouble In Little China.
(1986) Directed by John Carpenter
Screenplay by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein
Jack Burton is in for some serious trouble. And you’re in for some serious fun.
What It’s About:
When Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), the green eyed girl of swaggering long haul livestock trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell)’s buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is kidnapped by Chinese gangsters and dragged off into the mysterious underworld of San Francisco’s Chinatown, they pursue her kidnappers in Jack’s rig, The Porkchop Express. Stumbling upon a brutal streetfight between the Chang Sings and the Wing Kong, rival tong factions, Jack and Wang witness the arrival of a supernatural entity called Lo Pan (David Wong) and his three mystically superpowered henchmen, the Storms, and are forced to abandon his truck. Uncovering centuries old ghostly happenings, Jack and Wang must enlist the aid of wily old sorcerer Egg Chen (Victor Wong), crusading lawyer Gracie Law (the lovely Kim Cattrall), and others to rescue Miao Yin and defeat Lo Pan.
Why I Bought It:
Big Trouble In Little China is my favorite John Carpenter movie. It foresaw the Hong Kong action cinema craze of the nineties by nearly a decade, and predictably, found no audience upon its release.
I saw it on video with a buddy and his cousin, and loved it out of the gate. I had never seen anything like it. It’s hilarious, action packed, visually exciting, full of awe-inducing practical FX by Richard Edlund, has one of Carpenter’s best synth scores (the whole thing sounds like an 80’s arcade game, which is fitting as its plot probably inspired a slew of them) and has what I think is unequivocally one of the most audaciously conceived and inspired protagonists in all of popcorn cinema; Jack Burton.
Jack is a blustery, overconfident braggart who’s seen too many John Wayne and Eastwood flicks (he carries around a pair of saddlebags like The Man With No Name) and is at nearly every turn, in over his head. He’s a total fool. He’s a horrible liar, his jokes fall flat, he’s never fired a gun (as evidenced when he nearly fails to blast a Wing Kong attacker because the safety’s still on his Tec-9. When he manages to squeeze a few timely shots off and blinks thoughtfully at the dead man, Eddie asks “First time you ever plugged somebody?” Jack immediately recovers his former loping posture and shrugs, annoyed. “’Course not!”), and he charges into everything like a bull in a china shop (no pun intended). He’s the big dumb American cowboy stomping through a supernatural kung fu flick.
And the great thing about him is, it works for him. There is an adage that God watches over drunkards, children, and fools. It’s implied that Jack is two out of the three. He knocks himself out exuberantly blowing chunks of stone from the ceiling, gets pinned under a heavily armored guard, and is easily bested even by the butterfly knife toting punks at the airport (When the littlest of the punks Jack tries to buffalo whips out a telescoping steel baton, Jack looks confused. “Hey….where’d you get that?” Always makes me laugh out loud). But in the zero hour, when it counts the most, somehow, beyond all reason, Jack comes through in spades.
My fellow writer and movie buff Derrick Ferguson blew my understanding of the character wide open when he observed that Jack Burton is NOT the main character of Big Trouble In Little China. He’s the sidekick. He’s the comic relief. But his ego and self-delusion doesn’t allow him to believe he’s not the hero. Really the story is Wang Chi’s. He’s the earnest one out to save his girl, and he’s an extremely adept fighter. Even Egg Chen’s motivations are more compelling. Jack just blundered into everything. He’s just a guy that hauls pigs for a living. The only thing at stake for him is his truck. Granted, The Porkchop Express is his livelihood and a big deal for him, but Lo Pan’s taking of it is a footnote to the story. He’s not going to take over the world with Jack’s truck, and indeed, the recovery of The Porkchop Express is even treated as a sidenote to the action. “There’s my truck,” Jack mumbles as he pulls open a door, then does a double take, as if even the screenwriters have forgotten about it. “My TRUCK!”
Another great draw of Big Trouble is James Hong’s Lo Pan. The nature of Lo Pan’s curse means he is at times a young, tall, imposing, graceful warlord in resplendent mandarin garb – but a totally insubstantial ghost – and at others, a withered, cantankerous, crippled old man trembling in a wheel chair. Hong manages to make both incarnations utterly distinct and yet tie them together with a malevolent jubilance that comes through in his shrill, cackling laughter and apparently incongruous modernisms. Old Lo Pan has some of the funniest lines in the movie, and his speech and dialogue were endlessly quoted by my circle of friends as a kid (“Who are these? Friends of yours? Now this really pisses me off to no end!”). The young Lo Pan is magnificently imposing, dark and intriguing, and totally believable in his silky, seductive manipulations of Grace Law and Miao Yin. The fact that both aspects are played by the same actor is a testament to that actor’s skill.
The movie is wonderfully imaginative. There’s the aforementioned three badass henchmen, The Three Storms, obviously inspired by Kazuo Koike’s basket-headed master assassins the Hidari Brothers (or The “Bentenrai”) from the Lone Wolf and Cub manga and film series, one of which generates brilliant chains of wild lightning with a series of furious martial art wind-ups (and in turn inspired Mortal Kombat’s Raiden character). Lo Pan spies on interlopers with a kind of floating D&D Beholder with an eyeball on the end of its tongue. Egg buffs his allies with super powered awareness and abilities via a smoking Dr. Frankenstein potion from his mysterious six demon bag, from which he also pulls a jewel that allows him to engage in a sorcerous bout of virtual Street Fighter with Lo Pan. For some reason there’s some kind of monstrous fanged wildman running around.
Among all this madness, I love that the Chinese characters take every incredible happening for granted as reality. It’s a funny contrast to Jack’s astonishment at everything he sees. In my opinion, the fact that nothing is really overly explained reinforces this cultural disconnect. At one point they travel to Lo Pan’s lair by passing through some subterranean passage bubbling with rivers of black blood (“You mean oil?” “I mean black blood of the earth.”) and apparently teeming with creepy crawly man eating abominations (“It will come out no more!” “What? Huh?! What’ll come out no more?!”). Egg, a kind of Chinese Van Helsing, rattles off a legend about the surface of the earth turning over a thousand years ago, and deflects all of Jack’s (and our) western questions with one line, infuriatingly vague answers.
I understand this movie has sometimes been panned as racist, but really, that’s hokum. Although the main villains are Chinese, so are the heroes, and frankly, when I first saw Big Trouble, I don’t think I’d seen such badass depictions of Asian people since Enter The Dragon. The fight in the alleyway is still an exciting bit of martial arts action, featuring some awesome stick and sword fighting. It’s also peppered with familiar faces like Bruce Lee’s Filipino student Dan Inosanto (who crossed sticks with his sifu in Game of Death), the great Al Leong (who warrants his own blog post I’ve gotta get to one of these days), and memorably, Gerald Okamura as what can only be described as some kind of zen gunfighter.
The Chinese characters are not all martial artists either. Eddie (Donald Li), Wang (well OK, Wang is), Egg, and Uncle Chu (Chao Li Chi) come across as very real people, despite their involvement in supernatural matters. Even Lo Pan is a believable character. I admit I still don’t get why Thunder blows himself up at his master’s death beyond the obvious and culturally incorrect seppuku explanation.
Going back once more to the zen gunfighter thing, along with Jack’s saddlebags, I think that’s a throwback to the original script. Big Trouble was originally written as a weird western and Jack was out to recover his beloved horse. I’ve never read the first draft, but it’s interesting to think of what kind of movie it would’ve been.
I gotta mention the end title song sung by the Coup De Villes (John Carpenter’s band featuring himself, Tommy Lee Wallace – director of my all time favorite Halloween movie, Season of The Witch – and Nick ‘Michael Meyers’ Castle), which sounds to me like its meant to be Jack and Wang singing. I have nothing in particular to say about it, I just love it.
“You were not brought upon this world to ‘get it,’ Mr. Burton.”
No question the scene where Jack takes out Lo Pan.
Up until this point Jack hasn’t really distinguished himself in any way. Wang Chi has upstaged him, he spent the first half of the climactic big fight unconscious and the second part pinned underneath a heavily armored guard.
He finally gets an honest kiss out of his would-be girl Gracie Law, but then steps up to the newly made flesh Lo Pan and Thunder (about to kill Miao Yin to break his curse once and for all) with her lipstick smeared across his lips and teeth, undermining his big confrontational speech. He’s taken down a further notch when he intones “Yeah, you know what old Jack Burton always says….” And Thunder interrupts with “Who?!”
Wang closes with Thunder and the two take their battle offscreen as Jack takes out his trusty knife and flings it at Lo Pan.
Lo Pan steps aide easily and it clangs into a gong.
Jack takes a deep “Goddammit” breath and glances at Gracie who sighs and gives him a hilarious, “Aw, Jack” look.
Miao Yin breaks away from Lo Pan and rushes to Jack’s side as Lo Pan stoops to retrieve the knife and examines it in his long taloned fingers.
“Good knife. Goodbye, Mr. Burton.”
Lo Pan throws the knife at Jack.
Jack plucks it out of the air and throws it back, sending it dead center into Lo Pan’s forehead, between his two surprised eyes.
Jack looks at Gracie and Miao Yin, who are both as astounded as the audience.
Savoring what’s probably the one truly cool moment of his life, he shrugs.
“It’s all in the reflexes.”
I don’t know if I can adequately convey the hilarity and excellence of this scene. Even watching it now I still got a momentary chill. When I and my eleven year old buddies saw it for the first time, we nearly drove the couch down through the floor into the basement whooping it up and jumping up and down in excitement.
Would I Buy It Again? Yes. The DVD purchase is alone worth it because of Carpenter and Russell’s commentary, one of the top three commentaries I’ve ever listened to. It’s hilarious. You can hear their liquor glasses clinking throughout the audio, and they steadily laugh more and more at both the movie and each other.
Next In The Queue: The Black Swan