I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Big Trouble in Little China

Here’s a John Carpenter movie I somehow never reviewed before. Kurt Russell plays Jack Burton, a loudmouthed truck driver who stops in Chinatown to gamble with an old buddy, and ends up stuck in the middle of a gang war, an ancient prophecy, magic powers, monsters, etc.

The opening scene of the movie is classic. It fades in on Egg Shen, the driver of a tour bus in Chinatown, being interviewed by a lawyer about “what happened.” We know that something big and crazy happened, that a whole block erupted into “green flames,” and that people want to know where “Jack Burton and his truck” are. Shen admits that he believes in Chinese black magic and when the lawyer asks why he should believe in it Shen holds up his hands and shoots bolts of green lightning between them. “See?” he says. “That was nothing. But that’s how it always begins. Very small.” Then it cuts to a shot of a truck as the opening credits begin, and you realize “okay, a truck. This must be that Jack Burton they were so concerned about.” Classic!

Big Trouble in Little ChinaSo I was kind of surprised to learn from the commentary track that the scene was a concession to the studio. Barry Diller, chairman and CEO of Fox at the time, demanded and helped write the scene to make Jack Burton seem “more heroic.” Which is kind of going against the whole joke of the movie that he’s the main character but not exactly the hero. His buddy Wang (Dennis Dun) is smaller than him and seems like the sidekick, but is actually far more capable than him. This is probaly Carpenter’s most overtly comedic movie and that idea of this blowhard thinking he’s the reluctant hero when he’s actually not doing much is where alot of the laughs come from. For example during one of the big fights he fires his gun in the air causing a piece of the ceiling to break off, fall on his head and knock him out while the others do battle. Later he confidently pulls out a knife and you think “How does he know how to throw knives?” but then he throws it and in fact he doesn’t know how – it flops through the air and bounces off a gong.

And come to think of it, his adventures don’t begin “very small” either. Unless you consider gangsters kidnapping Wang’s girlfriend at the airport and luring them into a gun, sword and magic battle with people flying around shooting lightning to be “very small.” So I guess I can see how that opening scene doesn’t fit. I still think it’s a badass way to start the movie, though.

I’ve watched this movie many times since the ’80s and I’ve always enjoyed it, but I gotta admit it’s not as streamlined as the better John Carpenter pictures. In the middle section it gets pretty repetitive and hung up in that ’80s adventure movie thing where the characters have to climb around through an ancient underground structure with secret passages, traps and chutes (at least this one doesn’t look like a waterslide like they usually do). One way Carpenter makes it stand out from the other movies of this type though is the great special effects for the occasional monster or weird transformation. There’s a part where a guy puffs himself up like a balloon that looks pretty amazing, and even more impressive is when the villain Lo Pan glows from inside his head – I’m not even sure how they did that. And it also stands out by not treating these supernatural acts with any reverance. Whenever Jack sees another impossible sight he gets pissed off and starts ranting about it. When they face off with a big levitating ball of flesh covered in eyes called a “Guardian” Jack shoots it in the nose and says “You never know until you try.”

I also gotta admit it’s kind of a throwback to the racist days of Fu-Man Chu and Charlie Chan and Dragon Ladies and Opium Dens, the Exotic Mysteries of the Orient and What Have You. But I don’t know, I’d be interested to know what any of my readers of Chinese descent think of it. It does have the spooky old creep with long fingernails doing magic, but the rest of the bad guys are all pretty badass. And it’s got the lovable old Egg Shen who’s definitely a stereotype, but the rest of the good guys are more down to earth.

There’s better martial arts than your usual American movie of the time. The Three Storms, with their giant shinobi hats and wire-fu floating powers, seem like something out of an authentic martial arts film more than an American studio film. That said, it’s not like a great Shaw Brothers movie or something. That stuff is more like background mayhem for the real attraction, which is Jack Burton.

For Snake Plissken Russell seemed to be channeling Clint Eastwood, Jack Burton talks a little more like John Wayne. But he’s much more of an egomaniac and a doofus than Wayne ever played. It’s a really funny character, so not surprisingly fans still dream of a sequel. The only problem is that not only is Jack reluctant, he’s not very effective. So it’s not like if there was some new problem that came up they would need his help. I just learned that they did come close to making a sequel in ’95, but it would’ve been a TV movie, and skimming through the script it looks like they didn’t even include the character of Jack! I’m not sure why anybody would want to see that.

The out of print DVD from Anchor Bay is a good one because it has a funny commentary track with both Carpenter and Russell. Russell sure laughs alot. This is the one where Russell goes off on a long tangent about his son’s hockey team before suddenly remembering that he’s doing a commentary track and that people might not be interested in that. The DVD also has a hilarious music video for the theme song – hilarious because it shows John Carpenter himself singing and rocking out. His bandmates in The Coup De Villes are Tommy Lee Wallace (writer/director of HALLOWEEN III and VAMPIRES: LOS MUERTOS) and Nick Castle (the original Michael Meyers and director of THE LAST STARFIGHTER). I do not recommend watching this movie when you’re sick like I did though, because having that song looped all night in your fever dreams is worse than when the same thing happened to me with the ROCKY theme. Under normal health conditions though this is a goofy but worthwhile viewing experience.

http://youtu.be/lyTosEXbeBI

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 7th, 2008 at 10:52 am and is filed under Action, Comedy/Laffs, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

23 Responses to “Big Trouble in Little China”

  1. I just re-watched this on blu ray, it’s one of those movies that I had never seen from the beginning

    it’s a very entertaining movie to be sure, but I can’t help but find the story a bit confusing, certainly I can’t be the only one? for example why did Lo Pan kidnap a bunch of women? and why did he need to marry a woman with green eyes to become mortal again?

    it’s a fun movie, but I don’t think it’s on the same level as say Raiders of The Lost Ark, Back To The Future or even The Thing (which is a horror movie, not an adventure, but still….)

  2. also remember when it was in vogue for a while to remake Carpenter movies? culminating with them remaking Halloween and almost remaking Escape From New York?

    well I’m surprised they never attempted Big Trouble In Little China

  3. I just read on Wikipedia that it turns out Lo Pan and the “marrying a girl with green eyes” thing is taken from Chinese mythology

    well I’ll be, that’s pretty cool

  4. caruso_stalker217

    June 19th, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    It doesn’t matter if the story is confusing or not because it moves at a nice brisk pace and has the action and the laffs and so forth.

    For the record, though, Lo Pan had to marry a girl with green eyes because wasn’t that the rule laid down by the Chinese god whatsisname? And since Chinese girls don’t “come with green eyes” then his chances of finding a suitable woman are slim and none? I don’t know why he decides to marry Gracie, though. She’s white. And if a white chick counts then why didn’t he marry one sooner?

    Wait, I forgot. The story doesn’t matter.

    This movie is a fucking classic.

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  6. You guys hear the news that The Rock’s gonna be Jack Burton in a remake of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA?

    Uh, why?

    The original film was a flop, the people who remember it fondly are probably against the notion of a remake and today’s young audience doesn’t even know what the hell BTILC is anyway, so there’s no real name-recognition for them. (same as with MAD MAX).

    Unless they bring in Kurt Russell to make this new one of these sorta-sequel deals that are so popular right now I’m against it. I love that old movie.

  7. *make this new one ONE of these sorta-sequel deals

    …is what I meant to say.

  8. I’m not against it. Mostly because I don’t hate the idea of remakes. Also I’m sure Dwayne T.R. Johnson can knock the role of the comic relief sidekick, who thinks that he is the hero of the story but never really pulls any heroic stuff off, out of the park.

    But something tells me that in the end it will be a pretty generic and dull adventure movie. Probably even completely serious and without any of the Chinese mythology cliches, because of political correctness.

  9. Generic is right. You think they’ll go with really daring, outré casting choices like picking Jackie Chan for Egg Shen, or Chow Yun-Fat for Lo Pan? How about Jet Li? (Or maybe they’ll ignore the Chinese part of the whole thing altogether and go with Ken Watanabe, Hiroyuki Sanada and Randall Duk Kim. John Cho for Wang Chi? Asian is Asian, eh?)

    Sorry, I just find it difficult not to be cynical about the whole thing.

  10. I think Rock could really nail the oblivious meatheadedness of Jack Burton, and he’s a producer on the film so hopefully he’ll be able to shepherd that crucial aspect of the movie through the same gauntlet of clueless studio notes Carpenter had to wade through to get Burton to the screen with his delightful incompetence intact. But I’m still against the remake, both on general principle (Oh, NOW you johnny-come-lately Hollywood motherfuckers want to get behind the movie? Fuck you) and because it will mean we’ll never get my long-imagined Carpenter/Russell reunion BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE TOKYO, in which older but less wiser Jack flails ineffectually in the face of samurais and J-horror monsters and shit. FURIOUS 7 proved that Kurt still has that same twinkle in his eye that makes him so much fun to spend a movie with. But I guess it was always a longshot and at the very least we’ll have a movie where The Rock punches a bunch of lightning-shooting demons in the face, and I like to believe that can only be so bad.

  11. The Original Paul

    June 2nd, 2015 at 4:39 am

    This is great news, because it gives us all a chance to play a game of “How the fuck are they gonna screw this up?” Everybody ready to place your bets?

    1) Have DJ play Jack Burton as a “funny” guy, instead of a serious guy with funny lines.
    2) Swap Wang Chi’s traditional mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant of the original for [insert well-known American fast food joint here] due to sponsorship deal.
    3) Get Gary Oldman to play the “young” Lo Pan, and Ian McKellen to play the “old” one.
    4) Fake Bruce Lee from GAME OF DEATH cameo.
    5) Leave out “Wasn’t easy!”
    6) Use “Wasn’t easy!” but have Egg Shen in a place that’s clearly reachable.
    7) Instead of “Wasn’t easy!”, have Egg say “It’s magic!” and do a “jazz hands” sign.
    8) Mickey-Rooney-in-Yellowface cameo.
    9) Have Thunder, Rain and Lightning show up without ridiculous hats.
    10) Swap Jack Burton’s truck for [insert well-known American muscle car here] due to sponsorship deal.
    11) Replace Lo Pan’s requirement of “green-eyed women” with “women with tramp stamps”.
    12) Emperor Ming cameo.
    13) Post-action bullshit.
    14) Have all the marketing materials written in “funny Asian”. Which of course I would never ever use.

    You place you bet, you no go wong! Bet now!!!

  12. I mention this in my stand-up routine, but I don’t want a remake of BTiLC (my third favorite movie of all time) because eventually I’ll run across someone who prefers it to the original. And I’ll have to stab them to death to make the world a better place. But if the cop that finds me and the body is around my age, and I explain why I did what I did, there’s a good chance he’ll say “Son, just go.”. Also, I dunno if DJ Rock understands that Jack Burton is a fool or is willing to play him that way in a big Hollywood movie. He DID do a variation on it very well in SOUTHLAND TALES, but that was a no-budget lark. The worst thing that could happen in a remake is making Jack the actual hero, but with the right director (Doug Liman, maybe? Shane Black, who made one of the most racist characters in Marvel Comics a great twist-y comic relief?) I might just be interested enough to pay actual money for it.

  13. Ancient Romans

    July 2nd, 2016 at 5:59 pm

    30TH ANNIVERSARY! TODAY!

  14. Came back here for the 30th Anniversary. Going back to earlier comment the reason they had all the girls is that outside of finding the girl with green eyes, David Lo Pan was a local mobster as a part of his day job and his big evil scheme was human trafficking. They pointed this out at the brothel, maybe obliquely, though. Evil but also effective way to screen for green eyed women. The Lords of Death were his toadies that would pick up the ladies.

  15. And there’s this, too – honestly, I thought this was a gag, but no, it’s real:

    "Escape from New York" & "Big Trouble In Little China" to Crossover in Comics

    "Escape from New York" & "Big Trouble In Little China" to Crossover in Comics - Greg Pak and Daniel Bayliss are combining the two John Carpenter franchises for a comic book crossover from BOOM! Studios.

  16. Crushinator Jones

    July 12th, 2016 at 10:41 am

    Ugh. That sucks.

  17. No. No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no NO.

    That being said, I’ll probably read it in the comic store.

  18. Oh come on, guys. It’s a one-shot comic book that was done for shits and giggles. Don’t go all cliche nerd on here.

  19. Right on, CJ – this looks a ton of fun.

  20. When I first saw the responses in the comments thread without any context I thought “Oh god, something genuinely awful has happened to someone attached to this film”. I was hugely relived to find out it was just a comic book crossover.

  21. *relieved

  22. I’m a total sucker for these kind of ridiculous team-ups in comics and this will sit nicely on my shelf next to my copies of RAMBO VS COBRA, ROBOCOP/BUCKAROO BANZAI and GHOST HAUNTS ROAD HOUSE.

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