Retro-View: Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

When I look back on the neon cultural landscape of the 1980’s, John Carpenter’s name pops up as one of my cinematic touchstones. I was first exposed to him at an early age, on a 1974 double-bill of THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and DARK STAR, one of the great movie going experiences of my youth. I loved DARK STAR, thought it witty, irreverent and very underground. Its influence on ALIEN is manifest even beyond their mutual screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon. I saw the trailer for HALLOWEEN before ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES and I was so scared I woke up my friend’s parents that night with my mewling. Starting with ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) which my brother let me cut school to watch on its Friday debut, I saw every single Carpenter film on opening day through the decade. I still recall the buzz I got from Kurt Russell dropping “F” bombs and kicking-ass as Snake Plissken, only a few years after his last Walt Disney film, THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD (1975).

If any film ushered in the era of new wave punk movie style, it would be ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, featuring what is probably the first modern head-butt in action cinema (although Bruce Lee did it first in ENTER THE DRAGON). George Miller’s stunning THE ROAD WARRIOR (1982) would expand on Carpenter’s punk-leather elements (and feature the second head-butt), and with those two films, the dominant style of 80’s sci-fi apocalyptica was born. I was doubly excited over Carpenter’s remake of THE THING, and followed its production closely in FANGORIA, when it was THE coolest genre magazine between 1980-83 (under the editorship of “Uncle” Bob Martin). Of course I entered the magazine’s “Draw The Thing” contest and was one of the 100 finalists from over 4000 entries; not only did I get a cool promo button, but my name imprinted within the issue featuring a cover story on a lo-budget horror film that Stephen King claimed was “The most ferociously original horror film I’ve seen in years” called THE EVIL DEAD. I was a huge fan of THE THING and I’ll never forget the audience’s collective gasps at Rob Bottin’s mesmerizing effects.  I even saw CHRISTINE on Christmas day, a lump of movie coal. But I digress.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was the first Carpenter film I saw by myself, driving my first car (1969 Dodge Dart Western Sports Special) to the Birdcage Walk shopping center in Citrus Heights in the summer heat. I loved Birdcage because right next to the theater was a beloved Comics & Comics store. And a video game arcade. And a bowling alley. Suburban mallery at its most “Subdivisions.” Yes, life was good on a Friday afternoon in August of 1986. Happily, the film was even better. I immediately “got” the tone Carpenter and screenwriter W.D. Richter (BUCKAROO BONZAI) were going for, a mock cowboy comic book kung-fu fantasy, and because I left my heart in San Francisco, I loved the texture of the film, the movie actually felt like the diverse, eccentric, mysterious Bay Area and the characters referenced cultural elements of the city (like Margo Litzenberger of the Berkeley People’s Herald). The film has an atmospheric cocooning effect, and when Jack Burton drives his truck within the foggy confines of the Chinatown alley where he’ll encounter his first taste of Chinese black magic, I was snug and secure in my theater seat, ready for the roller-coaster. One criticism of BTILC at the time of its release was that the characters talked too fast, a point I also noted, but that was in line with Carpenter’s love of Howard Hawks’ flying verbiage. To this day, I am still unsure of what is being said in some scenes. Still, it makes me laugh. And Carpenter does wonders with his fun ensemble cast of Russell, Dennis Dun, Kim Cattrall, Victor Wong and especially James Hong as the villainous Lo Pan.

Of course, only Kurt Russell could have pulled off Jack Burton, a bigmouth trucker coming to the reluctant aid of his friend Wang Chi after his fiancee is kidnapped by mystical demons. Russell is never afraid to appear weak or stupid as Burton, a courageous thespic choice even though we know the guy can kick-ass.  Speaking in a John Wayne tone, Burton isn’t as tough as he wishes, but he’s also fearless; his slow evolution from braggart to bravado is one of the pleasures of the film. However, the film’s actual hero is his partner, played with the perfect mix of idealism and wisdom by Dennis Dun. His character embodies a civic cultural pride but he can trade smart-assisms with Jack and string him along to help. Plus he knows kung-fu. Dun’s speech to Russell about the secret history of Chinese magic is a nifty evocative moment. They make a terrific team and I particularly dig their look of mutual shock as the Three Storms arrive on lightning bolts in the alley. In fact, Russell has a panopoly of convincing “what the fuck” reactions to the Chinatown chaos.

Not surprisingly, the film was the subject of protest from segments of the Chinese American community, who assumed the script pandered to racial stereotypes, an accusation that angered Carpenter and his largely Chinese cast (Carpenter has never been afraid to use minorities as his leads). While I’m not going to say that BTLC is any snapshot of Asian culture, Carpenter clearly shows respect and understanding while W.D. Richter’s script is wise at turning stereotypes upside down, inside out. Even Jack Burton, the supposed “hero” keeps getting knocked on his ass. One of my favorite screenwriters, Richter has a gift for quirky ensemble characters. Like John Sayles, he gives them personalities first. This is especially true in the case of the story’s antagonist, Lo Pan, the centuries old spirit played with verve and charisma by James Hong. The film’s biggest laugh line remains his pithy, “Now this really pisses me off to no end.” Alternately scary, funny, sympathetic and unpredictable, Hong dominates the role, and ends up one of the great movie villains of the 1980’s next to Alan Rickman from DIE HARD; Arnold Whathisface in THE TERMINATOR; and Ricardo Montalban in THE WRATH OF KHAN. When the film opened, there was no more protest. Had it been more successful, who knows…

I recall the exact moment when I knew I LOVED this movie: after Burton accidently saves the day in a wily wheel-chair, he ends up trading guns with Wang Chi and their third wheel, Eddie Lee, (the charming Donald Li) as they all switch weapons like kids playing Cowboys and Indians. It’s an inspired moment and I felt completely secure with the movie for transmitting this Afternoon Matinee playfullness straight into me. There’s another small bit that resonates, when the kidnapped soon-to-be-brides, Kim Cattrall and Suzee Pai, are hypnotized and sent flying into the air to test their strength, the film suddenly feels like a Toho monster movie. I also love the scene when local sorcerer Egg Shin (played by the lovely Victor Wong) demands they all drink from the “six-demon bag” potion before they take on the Ultimate Evil Spirit. “Huge buzz,” he intones to Burton in a line that’s taken me ten years to decipher. When the team enter the elevator that will lead them down to Lo Pan’s chambers, Burton says, “I’m not scared at all…I feel kind of invincible.” Wang Chi smiles and remarks, “Me too. I have a very positive attitude about this.” All this as the others wink and nod to each other in one expert composition. It’s a gem of a moment and perfectly sets the audience up for the character’s super powers as they go into battle against Lo Pan’s evil army. The film’s single repeated metaphor, that of the characters either going up or down, I leave to you for an interpretation. I like the mystery of not quite knowing why that theme fits the film.

With a price tag of 25 million dollars, this was Carpenter’s biggest budget and the last film he would do with his ace cinematographer, Dean Cundey, one of my favorite DP’s ever. Like Carpenter, he’s a master of blue tone and 2:35.1 widescreen depth. His lighting acumen makes BTLIC a visual feast, helping to create the illusion of underground worlds and fantastic chambers. I miss the Cundey/Carpenter collaboration as they brought out the best in each other. I particularly admire the shot of masked warriors marching down the deep ornate halls on the way to Lo Pan’s wedding. Along with that, the production design by John Lloyd and April Ferry’s beautiful costumes both deserved Oscar nominations. To top it off, there’s even a few cool monsters by make-up maestro Craig Reardon. And only in the electric 80’s would Lo Pan’s giant skull-based ceremonial chamber be outfitted with bright neon lights like a Chinese fighting restaurant.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is John Carpenter’s most kinetic film and it never stops moving to oddball places. His electronic score is one of his best, rhythmically enhancing the pop visuals. He stages impressive battle sequences with a combination of clever cutting and physical choreography. Although the martial arts fights might seem slow by today’s hyper-accelerated standards, they’re still clever and ambitious, noticeably in the climatic bout between Wang Chi and the mystic bad guy, Rain (Peter Kwong). Carpenter has them flying at each other with clashing swords in a perfect post-modern version of a Shaw Brothers film (even Bruce Lee’s ultimate disciple Dan Inosanto plays Burton’s first “plug” ). Whatever the mise-en-scene, Carpenter is one of the great action directors. My favorite moment in the picture is when Burton realizes they’re trapped in a warehouse and he tells the others to “hide.” Wang Chi remains and says, “We fight together, Jack. Do or die.” And as the guards burst through the door, Burton plays it straight and mows them down with his supercool Intratec machine-gun. Carpenter’s ability to go from humor to tension serves him well here.  Of course, Burton won’t get another chance to help out until the end. Which leads to his final confrontation with Lo Pan in the flesh, replete with Russell in lipstick, and one of the finest, fastest showdowns in the history of cinema. Yes, it’s all in the reflexes.

The ending is a touch poignant as Burton leaves Wang Chi and a potential lover in Gracie Law to return to his solitudinal trucker’s life. Russell is such an underrated actor and even playing such a buffoon, he gives the character a quiet dignity at the end. You feel that him and his partner really did shake the pillars of heaven. Now Jack Burton has stories of his own and can speak from experience when the thunder quakes and the lightning shakes…and Carpenter gives the audience one final imagistic jolt that I still find startling. I walked out of BTILC a little dazed, still acclimated to the misty tunnels and dark halls of a supernatural San Francisco I believe does exist. At least I did more than ever for those 100 minutes in the August afternoon cocoon of the Birdcage Walk cinema. Next to STAR WARS, this was best time I ever had in a movie theater. I felt energized with the film and its possibilities to transport wonder and adventure.

Sadly, I was the only one who seemed to feel that way. BTILC opened at number four at the box office that week, and never fully recovered. I saw it three times, even dragging a group of my friends to the movie try so they might spread the word.  The reviews were vicious or disparaging. It was this film in fact that caused my rift with Roger Ebert as a critic. Lovely man though he is, I couldn’t believe he gave thumbs down to this and praised the limp, mediocre THE GOLDEN CHILD a few months later (which Carpenter was to have directed). I knew my adopted pet film was really dead when I was watching the local news and the sportscaster said that his friend had taken him to a terrible movie that he wouldn’t say the title of  — and they flashed the title under him: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Man, what was with the hate? Even Harlan Ellison, who had little good to say about Carpenter’s post HALLOWEEN work, thought that the film was goofy fun and recommended it in a review.

Like all of John Carpenter’s 80’s ouvre, this one went immediately into cult movie mode, finding legions of new fans through cable and home video viewings. Perhaps that’s why the film confused audiences in 1986, the tone was sincere yet satirical and the cultural referents were a little too obscure for the room. Jackie Chan was not even a blip on the American map, and the anime/kung fi geekdom was relegated to sub-sub-cultures (with me as a member). The violent acrobatics of the new Hong Kong cinema were right around the corner with ironically, even BTILC influencing some Asian genre films. Jack Burton’s foolish nature may have irritated audiences as have other Carpenter/Russell collaborations (shades of his amazing ego-free turn as Stuntman Mike in GRINDHOUSE). And I won’t deny that there could have been a subtle ethnic unease from the masses. The movie’s box office failure and Carpenter’s unhappiness with 20th Century Fox’s marketing (I agree; I don’t care for the cheesy poster design) led to him taking a lo-fi career path with the more successful PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE, followed by one more big studio misfire, MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, featuring a unique Chevy Chase performance in a flawed, impersonal film.

A few years later, I was living in downtown Sacramento and knew that Victor Wong was a local as well, writing and performing poetry around town since he was immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s novel, “Big Sur.” On the night I was reading my own verse at a local poetry open mic night, I noticed Victor Wong at the front table wearing a hulu skirt and writing on a notepad. He gave me hearty applause after my screed and I ended up sitting next to him, then had the pleasure of watching him recite a hilarious long poem that involved the hulu skirt. Walking home, I marvelled at the strange intersections of art and life. Or as Jack Burton would say, “I do know this is a pretty amazing planet we live on and a man would have to be some kind of fool to think we’re all alone in this universe.” Maybe that’s why BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA remains one of my favorite movies of all time.

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24 Responses to “Retro-View: Big Trouble In Little China (1986)”

  1. great article.
    this movie is art, i often say i want to frame a flatscreen that plays only this movie.
    true story.

  2. halmasonberg Says:

    I also loved this film when it came out and now you’ve gotten me psyched to see it again! Thanks, Christian.

  3. Be interesting to see a Blu-Ray version.

    And I agree Biff, that’s a brilliant idea.

  4. Man, your review brought back the memories. I can remember watching BTILC on repeat back in the day when HBO used to play the same stuff over and over again, like they still do.

    Mao Yen with her “eyes like cweemy jade”. Classic! Thanks!

  5. Yes, HBO definitely exposed generations to BTILC. I think I’ve seen it about 30 times. Or more. Welcome to The Hell Of Watching The Same Film Forever!

  6. Awesome review, Christian. I’m planning on seeing this one again sometime soon as I recently recorded it off of Retroplex. I think it’s in widescreen. *crosses fingers*

    If not, I guess I’ll just buy it.

  7. This one is worth owning. Fox even put out a two-disc set!

  8. I’m with you 100% on “Big Trouble In Little China”. I loved it when I saw it back in 1986 on, probably, the opening weekend. I own the double disc DVD and on the commentary both Carpenter & Russell just howl with laughter at what an idiot Burton is. I agree, but I still like the character a lot, most certainly because Kurt Russell (aka “Dexter Riley”) is playing him. Great write up, Christian.

  9. Thanks Bob. That disc is a treat and the commentary is hilarious. Burton and Carpenter just laugh and laugh, as they’re probably having drinks with the film too. I also love some of the deleted Burton moments, one which they should have definitely kept in after Gracie Law gives him a seaweed drink:

    “Okay, I get the picture — White Tigers, Lords of Death, guys in funny suits throwing plastic explosives while poison arrows fall from the sky and the pillars of heaven shake, huh? Sure, okay, I see — Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu and a hundred howlin’ monkey temples, and that’s just for starters, right? Fine! I’m back! I’m ready, goddammit — let me at ’em! Or else get me another glass of this stuff and turn on the ballgame.”

  10. […] “Jack Burton, that’s who!” As any self-respecting cine-geek knows, John Carpenter’s 1985 BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA remains his most purely entertaining film, a visionary melding of 70’s martial arts films and 80’s spfx spectacle with an iconic, audacious tongue in cheek Kurt Russell performance. For a more detailed examination of this cult classic here’s a snippet from my Retro-View on the film: […]

  11. Simply, The greatest movie ever made! IMHO.

  12. andreas Says:

    just seen it at the egyptian in hollywood, newer seen such an excited audience. john carpenter was there for a discussion.

  13. christian Says:

    Saw it there with Carpenter a few years back would have great to catch it with an even more enthusiastic crowd.

  14. Charley Brady Says:

    That was a truly terrific article, Christian. God, i hadn’t thought of that movie in years but now I can’t wait to see it again.

    Every time that I make the mistake of thinking that Carpenter was a crap director because of stuff like “Ghosts of Mars” I wake up and my missus gives me a bitch slap while screaming into my shell-likes:”Remember when you cried like a little baby at the end of “Starman”?

    Well, I’m not appoligising for that either.

    Charley.

    • Thanks Charley. This piece is one of the most hit of my site, testament to the power of the film oh so many years later. The Blu-Ray is stunning INDEED!

      And Bad Film Geek Admission – never seen STARMAN. To this day. It just feels wrong since I know THE THING is what’s inside Carpenter….

      • charley brady Says:

        Now that’s a seriously bad admission to make, although perhaps not as bad as me having to put my hands up and say I’ve never seen “The Dirty Dozen” or “The Guns of Navarone” or “Kelly’s Hero’s” and I was alive when they were made!

        Inside Carpenter there may well be a “Thing” trying to get out but all this time there has been the great love story of “Starman.” The gorgious Karen Allen, the great Jeff Bridges… you have to see it. And soon!

        Charley.

  15. Perfect Radiance Review…

    […]Retro-View: Big Trouble In Little China (1986) « Technicolor Dreams 70[…]…

  16. shawn amato Says:

    Yes one of my favorites! And yes you brought me to see it at birdcage for your second viewing and yes I loved it and took my sister then to see it!

    • christian Says:

      Damn you have a great memory….

      • Anonymous Says:

        Well buddy I don’t know if u ever knew my family life was kind of a mess and the only stable thing I had going was hanging out with you , going to movies and having lunch together. I was able to get away and indulge in all the movies I loved with someone who loved them like I did, and get away from my home life for a few hrs. Those are some of my most precious memories of the 80’s

  17. Sorry, the Drew Struzan poster art is perfect at emphasizing the elements that you highlight. That poster sells the movie, something else was wrong.

    • christian Says:

      Carpenter and Russell both express their disappointment wtth the marketing on their commentary – I just find this poster too busy, generic and Burton’s pose too dorky. I seem to recall some of the early ad campaigns were cooler but it’s tough to find any of the newspaper campaign Russell refers to on the disc.

  18. kim cattrall movies

    Retro-View: Big Trouble In Little China (1986) | Technicolor Dreams

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