Big Trouble in Little China (United States, 1986)

August 15, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Big Trouble in Little China Poster

Big Trouble in Little China was released at a time when John Carpenter’s white-hot career had begun a downward trajectory. His third feature starring Kurt Russell, Big Trouble matched the action-adventure elements of Escape from New York with magic, machismo, mummery, martial arts, and a dash of merriment. Affecting the vocal inflections of John Wayne and a sampling of the Duke’s swagger, Russell never quite takes seriously anything faced by his character, Jack Burton. Although Carpenter is best-known for his forays into horror (with Halloween and the Russell-fronted The Thing being standouts), he was never afraid to dabble in other genres, albeit with mixed results. Big Trouble in Little China is one of his less successful of such forays.

The movie transpires in San Francisco’s Chinatown where truck driver Jack Burton becomes involved in an airport kidnapping and a street war between rival gangs. Burton’s friend, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), is at the airport to meet his fiancé, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), who is arriving from China. Agents of David Lo Pan (James Hong), an ancient magician, capture Miao Yin and foil Jack’s attempts at rescue. Lo Pan needs to marry a girl with green eyes to regain his young, healthy corporal body. (He is currently a crippled old man.) In the process, Jack’s truck is stolen. Helped by Wang Chi; an industrious lawyer, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall); a busybody reporter, Margo (Kate Burton); and the magician Egg Shen (Victor Wong); Jack goes in search of his truck and the missing Miao Yin. Martial arts battles with Lo Pan’s three underlings – Thunder, Rain, and Lightning – ensue as time runs short for Miao Yin and Gracie, who also has green eyes and is captured by one of Lo Pan’s monstrous “pets.”

One of the most interesting aspects of an otherwise lackluster film is the hero/sidekick role reversal. Based on billing and reputation, one might naturally expect Kurt Russell to be the lead. In reality, however, that role goes to Dennis Dun. Russell is more of a sidekick and his purpose is as often comedic relief as it is to mow down the bad guys. On more than one occasion, he’s late to the action and there’s one instance when he knocks himself unconscious before entering the fray. Both actor and director have a lot of fun with this. Because the movie is presented from Jack’s perspective, Russell has more screen time than Dun but it doesn’t take long to determine that if anyone is going to defeat Lo Pan, it’s going to be Wang (with only a little help from the guy who mimics John Wayne, pardner).

Early drafts of the Big Trouble in Little China script were set in the Old West. After the rights to Gary Goldman & David Z. Weinstein’s screenplay were purchased, noted script doctor W.D. Richter was brought in to fix numerous problems. Although retaining character names and aspects of the backstory, Richter essentially rewrote the entire movie, in the process converting it from a period piece to a contemporary tale. It was at this point that Carpenter, who was interested in making a martial arts motion picture, came on board. Russell was initially reluctant but his friend convinced him that there was potential in Jack.

While Russell and Dun are good, the rest of the cast is a mixed bag. James Hong is over-the-top nasty; the character comes across as almost too sadistic for a movie that often opts for a tongue-in-cheek tone. Kim Cattrall shows her obvious limitations but that’s par-for-the-course for an actress who had trouble with any role outside of Sex and the City. Cattrall’s flippant artificiality derails every serious scene in which she appears (although she’s fine when being used as a comic foil). No one else has much to do, although there are some very capable martial arts experts who add a little zest to the action scenes.

The movie’s release was rushed due primarily to commercial concerns. Distributor 20th Century Fox was aware of the impeding release of Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child (which contained some similar plot elements) and wanted as wide a berth with that film as possible. To that end, they pressured Carpenter to make the film ready for a mid-summer release (The Golden Child was set for Christmas). The postproduction period was condensed and the special effects were less convincing than Carpenter wanted. At the time, they were deemed to be somewhat cheesy. By today’s standards, they fall into the campy-silly-amateurish category.

Although not well received during its initial run, Big Trouble in Little China has earned the overrated “cult classic” label, which is often applied to films that, following a disappointing first outing, accrete a small-but-passionate group of loyalists during the post-theatrical period. (This has become much easier during the home video era – the label was more meaningful prior to the mid-1980s.) Those who love the film primarily cite three things: Russell’s performance, the martial arts, and the devil-may-care tone. While all of those are undeniable highlights, they don’t add up to anything more than a passable diversion. It’s sporadically amusing but not consistently funny. There’s plenty of action but minimal tension. And the story never tries hard to be even a little convincing. At his best, Carpenter was able to do amazing things with low budgets and a surfeit of creativity but, despite the arguments of its adherents, Big Trouble in Little China isn’t an example of one of those instances.

Big Trouble in Little China (United States, 1986)

Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Suzee Pai
Home Release Date: 2021-08-15
Screenplay: Gary Goldman & David Z. Weinstein and W.D. Richter
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Music: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 1986-07-02
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Action/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1