By J.D. Lafrance
“What I’d like to do today is get your version of what happened,” says a mild-mannered, middle-aged attorney (Jerry Hardin). “Oh? You mean the truth,” replies a rather small, aging Chinese man who identifies himself as bus driver, Egg Shen (Victor Wong). The attorney remains skeptical as his potential client calmly describes his belief in Chinese black magic, and other supernatural phenomenon. As if to prove his point, the man holds up his hands so that they are parallel to one another. Suddenly, small bolts of blue electricity begin to flow from each palm, much to the attorney’s amazement and Shen’s bemusement. “That was nothing,” Shen states. “But that’s how it always begins. Very small.” And with this intriguing, tell-me-a-scary-story teaser, John Carpenter’s film, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), takes us on a ride into the heart of ancient Chinese lore and mythology.
Carpenter, always the maverick director with a knack for exploring offbeat subject matter (see They Live and In the Mouth of Madness), created a film that simultaneously parodies and pays homage to the kung-fu genre. This often-maligned genre is given a new level of respectability that is rarely seen in Hollywood. Gone are the ethnic slurs, the insulting stereotypes and that annoying quasi-Chinese music that always seems to accompany representations of Asians in past mainstream features. Big Trouble takes great care in presenting funny and intelligent characters without caring whether they are Chinese or not. What is of paramount importance to Carpenter is telling a good story. He created an entertaining piece of fantasy that cleverly manipulated the conventions of the action film with often-comical results.
From the engaging prologue, Big Trouble takes us back to the beginning of our story with the first appearance of truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), a good-natured, fast-talking legend in his own mind. When he and his buddy, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), go to the airport to pick up the latter’s future bride arriving from China, a mix-up occurs. Wang’s bride-to-be (Suzee Pai) is kidnapped by The Lords of Death, a local gang of Chinese punks, and the duo quickly find themselves immersed in the middle of an ancient battle of good vs. evil with immortality hanging in the balance. This struggle takes place deep in the heart of the Little China neighborhood of San Francisco with Jack and Wang taking on David Lo Pan (James Hong), “The Godfather of Little China.” Even Egg Shen appears to help our heroes and provide them with the means to stop the evil that threatens not only Little China, but, of course, the whole world.
Big Trouble also saw Carpenter re-team with his old friend, actor Kurt Russell who had appeared in several of the director’s films, most notably Escape From New York (1981) and The Thing (1982). After watching Big Trouble it’s impossible to see anybody else as Jack Burton. Russell perfectly nails the macho swagger of his character: he’s a blowhard who’s all talk, inept when it comes to any kind of action and yet is still a likable guy. He is an amusing habit of sometimes referring to himself in the third person – there’s Jack’s world…then there’s reality. The two do cross paths on occasion but so very rarely. It is the right mix of bravado and buffoonery, a parody of the John Wayne action hero much in the same way Russell made Escape From New York’s Snake Plissken a twisted homage to Clint Eastwood. Jack is also the audience surrogate – our guide into this stranger and exotic world. Russell showcases untapped comedic potential that ranges from physical pratfalls to excellent comic timing in the delivery of his dialogue. One only has to look at his scene with Wang and the elderly Lo Pan to see Russell’s wonderful comic timing. No one before or since Big Trouble has been able to tap into Russell’s comedic potential as well as Carpenter does in this film.
Dennis Dun’s character starts off as the sidekick of Big Trouble and ends up accomplishing most of the film’s heroic tasks while the initial hero, Jack Burton, becomes the comic relief. Dun delivers a very strong performance, holding his own against a veteran actor like Russell. The chemistry between the two characters is one of the many endearing qualities of Big Trouble as evident from their numerous scenes together, most notably the one where Wang bets Jack that he can split a beer bottle in half (“Is this going to get ugly, now?”) and the scene where the two men attempt to break into Lo Pan’s building to rescue Wang’s fiancée.
Right from the get-go, Carpenter establishes their long-standing friendship in the way they relate to each other – the shorthand between them that is immediately believable, like how Wang good-naturedly tries to get out of paying off a debt he owes to Jack. They argue in a way that you imagine they’ve done many times before but when Wang needs a favor Jack is there for him.
Kim Cattrall plays Gracie as a pushy, talkative lawyer who acts as the perfect foil for deflating Burton’s macho ego at every opportunity, acting as his love interest and constant source of aggravation. Big Trouble’s script cleverly avoids the trap of reducing her role to a screaming prop by having Gracie take an aggressive part in the action. There’s a great give and take between her and Russell. Their characters make for an entertaining screwball comedy couple: he’s always on the make while she constantly fends off his obvious advances. This was Carpenter’s intention. He saw the characters in Big Trouble like the ones in classic Hollywood screwball comedies. Listen to how Jack and Gracie talk to each other – it’s a very rapid-fire delivery of dialogue reminiscent of Howard Hawks’ comedies. There’s the memorable first meeting between them at the airport where he tries to hit on her and she rebuffs him by saying, “You should try standing downwind from where I am. It’s Miller Time,” to which he replies, “You know what I say when it’s Miller Time?” before being interrupted by The Lords of Death.
I was struck at how good Victor Wong is as Egg Shen, the wizard that helps Jack and Wang defeat Lo Pan. He introduces the film with a fantastic little bit of magical flourish and then disappears for a spell until our heroes are ready to take on Lo Pan. I like how his tourist bus driver cover is something he does to pass the time. Later on we find out that he’s quite the legend in Chinatown and apparently quite wealthy, owning a rather large city block. It is also how Carpenter treats the character – with respect and dignity. He gets his moments of humor, imparts crucial expositional dialogue about Chinese magic and mysticism and even goes toe-to-toe with Lo Pan.
However, my favorite Egg Shen moment is at the end of the film, after Lo Pan has been vanquished and our heroes celebrate at Wang’s restaurant. I like how Egg is off in the corner having a drink by himself, quietly smiles and gives a little chuckle. It’s subtle and something you’d never see in a studio blockbuster these days but it is a little touch, a moment that provides a wonderful bit of insight into his character.
While much of W.D. Richter’s quotable dialogue is well-written, it is also how the actors say these lines that makes them so memorable, like the way Russell has Jack give his allies a pep talk: “Okay, you people sit tight, hold the fort, keep the home fires burning and if we’re not back by dawn, call the President.” It is the beat that he takes between “dawn” and “call,” and the tone of bravado in his delivery that makes this dialogue so amusing.
To this end, Carpenter is not given enough credit for being one of the best directors at conveying exposition dialogue in film. So often it is awkwardly shoehorned into the narrative and/or badly written, stopping the narrative momentum cold as it explains instead of shows. Carpenter inherently understands this and makes sure that the dialogue is not only interesting, providing us with tantalizing details that flesh out this cinematic world, but also makes sure his actors do a good job delivering it.
For example, there’s an excellent scene where Jack and Wang have been captured breaking into Lo Pan’s lair and Wang explains what he is and his place in Chinese history. It is important moment as it gives us an idea of what our heroes are up against and puts the villain in a historical context that establishes the stakes for him. Carpenter even slyly alleviates the solemnity of the moment when Jack says to Wang, “No horseshit, Wang?” His friend replies, “Hey, I don’t blame you. I’m Chinese and I don’t even want to believe it. But it’s for real: sorcery, Chinese black magic.” Dun really nails this scene and that last line sets an ominous tone that foreshadows the daunting task our heroes have to undertake. This scene also immerses us in authentic Chinese myths and legends. Big Trouble could have easily made light of Chinese culture, but instead mixes respect with a good dose of fun.
Big Trouble also places Asian actors in several prominent roles, including Victor Wong and Dennis Dun who is the real hero of the story, as opposed to Kurt Russell’s character who is a constant source of comedy. Big Trouble crushes the rather derogatory Charlie Chan stereotype by presenting interesting characters that just happen to be Chinese. For example, when a group of Chang-Sings show up to help Jack, Egg and Wang defeat Lo Pan, Jack asks, “Any of them savvy English?” to which one of them replies in perfect English, “Hey man, who is this guy?” This moment immediately and hilariously deflates an old Chinese stereotype in Hollywood films.
Big Trouble came out before the rise in popularity of Hong Kong action stars like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat, and filmmakers like John Woo and Wong Kar-Wai. Mainstream audiences weren’t ready for this kind of film. Despite being promoted rather heavily by 20th Century Fox, Big Trouble disappeared quickly from theaters. Bitter from having yet another film of his snubbed by critics and ignored by audiences, Carpenter swore off the big studios. He learned the hard way that working with them meant compromising his art in order to advance his career.
In an effort to have more freedom on the films he made, Carpenter became an independent yet again, cranking out Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988) in rapid succession. The veteran filmmaker didn’t fully embrace a big studio again until Escape From L.A. in 1996, but its disastrous critical and commercial reception drove Carpenter back underground where he’s been ever since, continuing to make the kinds of films we wants to make. Big Trouble in Little China has stood the test of time. It was rediscovered on home video where it has become a celebrated cult film with a dedicated audience. Big Trouble has since become one of the most beloved films in Carpenter’s career and with good reason. It is a fun, clever film that still holds up today and remains one of the finest examples of cinema as pure entertainment.