When I first saw Big Trouble in Little China (1986), my roommate at the time decided that the rest of our dorm had to see it too. He described it as “pretty much the best B movie ever made.” And he didn’t mean this in the usual “inferior” sense that the term “B movie” implies.
In fact, Big Trouble in Little China was his favorite movie of all time. It didn’t take long for all of us to agree that it was a pretty good recipient of his high praise. The mix of action, slapstick, somewhat dated special effects, Chinese mysticism, and star Kurt Russell made it charming and difficult not to love.
The story of all-American truck driver turned unlikely hero, Jack Burton (Russell), and his involvement in the seedy Chinatown underworld begins when his friend Wang’s green-eyed fiancee, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) is kidnapped. Seemingly just as important to the film as Jack, his truck, the Pork Chop Express, is also stolen. It turns out that the 2000-year-old mythical villain and recognizable Seinfeld guest star, David Lo Pan (James Hong), needs to marry a green-eyed woman in order to take on a mortal form. The mysterious Egg Shen serves as a rival to Lo Pan (Victor Wong) and provides exposition on all things ancient Chinese. Kim Cattrall also shows up as lawyer Gracie Law, who’s an obligatory love interest for Jack and is also a convenient damsel in distress as a result of her also having green eyes.
The movie seems to make up its mythology as it goes along, but I don’t mean that in a bad way. Every new mystical character or power introduced is only really there to showcase the special effects and add more weird stuff for Jack to react to. Lo Pan’s henchmen, Thunder (Carter Wong), Lightning (James Pax), and Rain (Peter Kwong) have enormous powers and are somehow brought down in rather silly and random ways. They make their first appearances when they effortlessly cut down a rival gang, but ultimately one is taken out when a ceiling falls down on him. The most inexplicable death out of the three occurs when Thunder, after seeing that Lo Pan has died, literally inflates himself until he bursts. Our heroes run away in the meantime, and the film continues. Somehow these deaths are both completely ridiculous and still acceptable.
There’s something to say about escapism when it gets elevated to higher levels of art. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) has not only been loved by audiences since its first release but is still regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made – this is quite an accomplishment for a 1940s’ serial-inspired adventure story. When films break down their stories into the most basic elements, they can either fall apart into generic summer action fare or they can ramp up their sequences of action, suspense, and overall quirkiness to offer just as much as any typical art film.
John Carpenter’s intention with Big Trouble in Little China was to make an unbridled, unapologetically campy psuedo-Western, unlike many of his other films, which are unrestrained action and horror films. Kurt Russell’s always cool and collected John Wayne attitude in the middle of even the weirdest situations could only exist in a movie like this.
Despite the film’s first scene, in which Egg Shen declares that Jack is a true hero, he straddles the line between being awkward and charismatic. A character with his uncaring, masculine attitude might be offensive in any other movie but, once again, the humor makes it all right. His genuine inability to be a regular action hero fits everything else that is tongue-in-cheek about the movie. Most of his great plans and fighting moves are genuinely clumsy and have poor results. Of course, Jack does ultimately put his fabled reflexes to work in the end to vanquish Lo Pan. And probably most importantly he manages to pull off that tank top and mullet the whole time.