Big Trouble in Little China

PhotobucketA Chinese street gang, the Lords of Death, have kidnapped Wang Chi’s green eyed fiancée. That’s the “big trouble”. The “little China” is San Francisco’s Chinatown where she’s taken.

John Carpenter’s amalgamation of action / adventure / comedy / fantasy is a loving, send up of a martial arts films. John Carpenter directs frequent collaborator Kurt Russell in their 4th partnership together following Elvis (1979 TV Movie), Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing (1982). Kurt Russell is clearly playing it for laughs channeling a screwy version of John Wayne. It’s a performance rooted firmly in camp. “I’m a reasonable guy, but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things,“ he says at one point. In fact he’s frequently prone to casting witty one liners that sound more like catchphrases than actual dialogue. And that’s just fine because the whole production is ridiculously over the top.

Big Trouble in Little China is focused on a colorful cast of characters. Where else can you go toe to toe with a villain that will blind you by staring into his glowing eyes or the energy blasts from his mouth? Those powers are embodied in evil sorcerer Lo Pan memorably played by James Hong. He’s flanked by The Three Storms (Rain, Thunder and Lightning) lesser sorcerers who look like they’re wearing huge lamp shades on their heads. Their first appearance is a wonderful showdown that combines two warring gangs: the Wing Kong, commanded by Lo Pan and the Chang Sings (the “good” guys). I’ve never seen or heard so many thunderclaps and animated lightning bolts discharging from people’s hands. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention those bizarre creatures. Words cannot accurately describe one I’ll simply call the Floating Eyeball Monster. It must be seen to be truly appreciated.

At times the narrative is a bit disjointed and difficult to follow. There are a lot of personalities highlighted in the story. It’s definitely one of those movies that improves on repeated viewings since it’s hard to process everything that’s happening. (I watched it twice before writing this review.) The confusing kidnapping scene at the airport feels like it was edited with a hacksaw. Also why does Lo Pan want to become a flesh and blood man when he’s so much more powerful as an immortal? But in the end, none of that really matters because this is a picture that aims to simply entertain and largely succeeds. The tone is goofily tongue in cheek with many laughs sprinkled throughout sensational action sequences. I think the film’s purpose is best encapsulated in this exchange:

Jack Burton: Somebody tell me what is going on!
Wang Chi: The truth?
Jack Burton: I can take it.
Wang Chi: We don’t know.

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23 Responses to “Big Trouble in Little China”

  1. I honestly had no clue this is by John Carpenter. Got this recently recorded on the DVR, so I might watch it sometime soon. Great review.

  2. Nice review Mark. I tried to review this a while ago and just couldn’t work out how to write it, to be honest. I ended up scrapping it but I’ll try again someday. I love the film though. It was a staple of my childhood.

    • Yeah it’s odd that I never saw this until now and I think the nostalgia factor is key. I debated giving this 4 stars actually. I did notice you do have a nice little review on Flixster.

      • Yeah, I added some comments on Flixster a while ago but I’d like to write something a little more substantial. I think the film is deserving of it. I’ll probably take what I’ve written so far and flesh it out a little in the future. Glad to hear you enjoyed it though Mark. Nice one. 🙂

  3. Finally, The Big Trouble in Little China review we’ve all be waiting for from you…

    But seriously, I love this movie and it’s way more fun when you realize that Kurt Russell is playing the sidekick role.

  4. I didn’t love it like everybody else in the world did, but I still have to admit that it’s fun, goofy, wild, and simply, all-over-the-place. And trust me, that’s not really a bad thing. Good review Mark.

    • It’s not great art, but it is fun. This actually flopped when originally released – $11 million is very low, even for 1986. It’s only become a cult hit since.

  5. sanclementejedi Says:

    Mark, this is one of the misses favorite films so I have watched it a few times. Not my favorite Carpenter film but it’s a fun watch. However, now I want to find the Elvis made for TV film.

    • Kurt Russell was nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance as Elvis.

      Trivia: He actually worked with and met Elvis in the film It Happened at the World’s Fair in 1963.

      • sanclementejedi Says:

        no kidding, well you learn something new every day. Now I have to hunt down that Elvis movie.

  6. i have seen this but recall very little of it. nevertheless a great review. some very funny observations .
    “I’ve never seen or heard so many thunderclaps and animated lightning bolts discharging from people’s hands”.

    anyway, i enjoyed reading this. on a side note, was just curious, have you considered reviewing an old Van Damme film? Hard Target? Sudden Death? or TimeCop ? these are fun films too with some memorable quotes.

  7. Very nice review, Mark. This sounds fun.

  8. This movie took me back. I loved it! On flixster I gave it 5 stars, after seeing it again, I give it 4 stars. It was still great fun! Lopan was funny!

    • Lo Pan was pretty much awesomeness personified. Now I’m not sure if I liked him better here or in the Seinfeld episode “The Chinese Restaurant”. CARTWRIGHT!!

  9. I’m a big John Carpenter fan, so i can’t help loving this movie despite its narrative faults and confusing plot. Carpenter and Russell were a formidable pair in the 80s. I would definitely agree that the exchange you quote at the end perfectly encapsulates the film as whole. It’s just silly fun and escapism. On the thought about talking in catchphrases rather than actual statements, you should definitely check out Carpenter’s later film “They Live” if you’ve never seen it. There are tons of gems in there like “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

  10. GaryLee828 Says:

    I used to like this movie when I was a kid. I haven’t watched it since, but I think I actually have the DVD. I’m gonna have to watch it again sometime soon and see how I feel about it 25 years later! 🙂

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