STARBURST takes a look back at classic John Carpenter film BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA …
“I’m not saying I’ve been everywhere and done everything. But I do know this is a pretty amazing planet we live on here. And a man would have to be some kind of fool to think we’re all alone in this universe.”
Wise, prophetic words spoken by truck driver Jack Burton at the beginning of what is one of the most iconic, well-loved and significant films of the ‘80s. Rarely does a film capture the imagination quite in the way this one does, combining Chinese mysticism and magic with the modern day; blending the exuberance of a boy’s own adventure with elements of horror, while its cast delivers some of the best one-liners ever committed to screen.
In fact, only one film truly does all this: Big Trouble in Little China.
If you are unfamiliar with John Carpenter’s masterpiece - we’ll leave that there and come back to it later - this is a film of unwitting adventurers battling an ancient evil; a simple, age-old story in essence. Simply plotted at heart, a tale of largely unprepared heroes-in-waiting setting out to rescue two women selected for marriage and/or sacrifice to a millennial Chinese sorcerer so that he may have eternal life. Well, perhaps not so simple, but let’s go back to the beginning.
At the dawning of the ‘80s, John Carpenter could do no wrong. Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) and his seminal slasher movie Halloween (1978) had established the writer, director, and composer as one of the key talents in the genre. While The Fog (1980) received a negative critical response, it still proved a commercial success, and Carpenter carried that momentum into making the cult favourite Escape from New York (1981) and horror staple The Thing (1982), both featuring Kurt Russell. But despite his relationship with horror, the director sought to try a new genre and after the award-friendly Starman (1984), he began to look for a martial-arts inspired script to fulfil a long-held ambition. Carpenter sated that ambition with Big Trouble in Little China.
“Ol’ Jack always says… what the hell?”
Originally conceived as a Western that incorporated Oriental influences by first-time screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, Big Trouble in Little China underwent various re-writes and alterations before Hollywood script doctor W. D. Richter was brought in by 20th Century Fox. With essentially everything from the original discarded, apart from the story of bad guy Lo Pan, Fox first offered the script to Carpenter in 1985. With Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, and Dennis Dun now on board the film finally went into production and was released to a lukewarm reception on July 2nd, 1986. With mixed reviews from the critics, and an uninspiring box office, how did this mishmash of cultural references and corny gags become one of the most beloved films of the decade? Watching Big Trouble in China now, the answer seems strangely obvious.
The first thing you notice about the film is the effortless chemistry between the actors. Reversing the usual trope, Russell’s Jack Burton is more a sidekick to Dun’s central Wang Chi, playing a more incompetent, everyman role than the Indian Jones-like character you would expect. The plot is driven by Wang Chi’s obsessive search for his kidnapped bride, and Burton is as much along for the ride as he is an able assistant in the quest. The witty dialogue feels as natural as it is funny, and you’re drawn to the true sense of friendship and respect between the pair. Add in a wonderfully over-acting, exposition-spouting Kim Cattrall as Gracie Law, part love interest for Burton, part brains of the group, and Victor Wong’s enigmatic local mystic, you have a core cast that blends perfectly.
There is also that extraordinary premise of the story. The early ‘80s was a period of cinema dominated by blockbusters such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984), and horror had built on a strong late-‘70s with films such as Scanners (1981) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). The fantasy genre was also experiencing a resurgence with and Dragonslayer (1981) and, most notably, Conan the Barbarian (1982) and its sequels. But with Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter combined key elements from all those genres into a film that defies standard classification, and is all the stronger for it. Seat-of-pants action scenes, dark-magic-wielding bad guys, beautiful but strong damsels to be rescued… and, of course, true heroes. This is a film that challenges the conventional and discards traditional Hollywood rules, replacing them with bold, brash and brave filmmaking that, as mentioned, was met with mixed reactions at the time of its 1986 release.
Over the past thirty years or so, this outlandish comedy-horror-action-kung fu-thriller has grown in stature, rightly becoming one of the most revered and respected films of the decade.
“Sit tight, hold the fort, keep the home fires burning. And if we’re not back by dawn… call the President.”
So, what makes this John Carpenter’s masterpiece?
More than any other film he has made, Big Trouble in Little China is a John Carpenter-y film. The themes and tropes we are so used to seeing throughout his films are strikingly present here. A long-time fan of Westerns, all Carpenter’s films feature references to this genre but Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton ‘riding’ into town on his Pork-Chop Express resonates more than most. The challenge faced by an unlikely band of heroes, up against a seemingly invincible foe continues the Western theme. Never has Carpenter’s wry, cynical sense of humour been more present than it is in Big Trouble in Little China; Burton’s endless one-liners hiding both the character’s confusion at the situation he’s facing, and offering a blue-collar bravado also present in Carpenter and Russell characters Snake Plissken (Escape from New York) and R. J. MacReady (The Thing). The electric, synthesised soundtrack so synonymous from Carpenter’s films is both pounding and melodic here, with the main theme (Pork-Chop Express) a career highlight.
There is so much to relish. But the one, single most significant element that sets Big Trouble in Little China apart from any other John Carpenter film is its sheer, unashamed, unflinching enjoyability. From the opening scene of Victor Wong’s Egg Shen demonstrating Chinese magic to an office full of sceptical policemen, to Jack Burton’s final monologue aboard the Pork-Chop Express, this is a film resplendent in its ridiculousness, and revelling in its reverie. Almost every genre is touched by the unstoppably entertaining narrative, and the cultural importance of how balanced the interracial characters are should not be underestimated.
Big Trouble in Little China would be a masterpiece in any filmmaker’s career, but in one as prolific and influential as that of John Carpenter, it is an even greater achievement. So, take care of yourselves out there, always look that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and, as seems fitting, we’ll leave you with the words of the great Jack Burton himself…
“When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favourite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that.”
“Have ya paid your dues, Jack?”
“Yessir, the cheque is in the mail.”
Get reacquainted with BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA when it screens on Horror Channel on September 30th. Sky 319, Freeview 70, Virgin 149, Freesat 138.