Big Trouble In Little China
starring Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, and Victor Wong
directed by John Carpenter
screenplay by Gary Goldman and David Weinstein
20th Century Fox (1986)
Call it a kung fu movie, call it a modernized western, call it an action flick, call it fantasy--heck, do what I did a few months ago and call it urban fantasy--but no matter what label you slap on it, Big Trouble In Little China is hands-down one of my favorite movies of all-time.
The movie came out in '86, and apparently bombed big time, coming nowhere close to its $20 million plus budget. Well, thank the stars for VHS, because in the late 90s some buddies and I found a copy of this movie on the bottom shelf in Blockbuster one night, when we were looking for some cheeseball movies to watch. Despite John Carpenter's name and Kurt Russell's smirk on the cover, I initially figured it was going to be garbage, one of those B-rated movies that stars do to pay the bills. I. Was. Wrong.
I can't remember what the other movie was that we watched that night, because Big Trouble stole the show. By the time the end credits rolled, I was tempted to rank this movie above another of my all-time favorites involving Carpenter and Russell, The Thing. Where The Thing was a pulse-pounding horror flick, Big Trouble was something else entirely: a balls-to-the-wall action farce saturated with so many one-liners it's a wonder there was any room for actual dialogue.
If you haven't seen the movie yet, dear lord, go! Find it. But if you need a little summary of what it's about, try this on for size: Jack Burton (Russell), a long-haul trucker hanging out in San Francisco's Chinatown with his friend Wang Chi, gets tangled up in a kidnapping, a gang war, and a supernatural conspiracy when Wang's fiance is abducted. Aided by a spunky lawyer (Cattrall), an old magician, and some of the more colorful characters around Chinatown, Jack leads the charge into the stronghold of a Chinese sorcerer named Lo Pan who seeks to escape his ghostly form by marrying a girl with green eyes (Wang's fiance).
James Hong as Lo Pan is hilarious. You might expect a sorcerer to be a bit eccentric, but this guy is over the top. Not only does he have a trio of elemental gods (Rain, Thunder, and Lightning), which in actuality are hired muscle--literally--Lo Pan's ego reaches comical levels. His ego pales, however, to that of our hero, Jack Burton. Jack has to be a satirical take on the alpha-male, John Wayne type of action hero, because his self-assured bravado is balanced nicely with his dim-witted handling of crisis situations that see him getting his ass kicked more than once. I don't know who Russell patterned his performance on, but Jack ended up disarmingly captivating in every scene. I can't help but cheer for the guy every time I see the movie, despite his reckless antics and over-inflated, prideful nature.
Sitting back and looking at the plot from beginning to end on paper, Big Trouble is just plain ridiculous. There is no way a movie like this should be as great as it is, because the disjointed nature of the overall story and the hair-brained efforts of almost everyone, good and evil. But with the commanding on-screen presence of Kurt Russell, and the charming performances of James Hong and Victor Wong, the movie's cult status is well-earned.