John Carpenter in Review: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Plot: An All-American trucker stumbles upon mythical creatures and kung fu masters fighting a centuries long war in Chinatown.
Big Trouble in Little China is the ultimate combination of John Carpenter’s abilities. It is a high-octane action-comedy that pays homage to and sends up plenty of genre films that came before it, all of which Carpenter has shown admiration for in the past. It is an energetic and colorful spectacle of East meets West. The traditional and unfortunately stereotypical aspects of both regions have always been compared and contrasted to one another. Carpenter effectively puts them to war showing deftness in spoofing the East while still playing with his favorite West elements. The film is the epitome of ’80s over-indulgence, stretching Carpenter’s love of practical effects and penchant for otherworldy visuals.
The East is represented by two different street gangs: the Chang Sing and the Wing Kong. During a funeral procession for the Chang Sing, the Wing Kong attack sending their very powerful magicians called “The Three Storms.” They are three Raiden (from Street Fighter)-looking dudes who are overflowing with raw power. The West is represented by the American setting and Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton.
It wouldn’t be the ultimate Carpenter movie without Kurt Russell. Jack Burton is a different kind of badass altogether. He isn’t the raspy voiced cartoon that Snake Plissken is, and he isn’t the steely resolved MacReady. He is a brash wise-cracker who stands apart. He is a man with an inflated ego with an expectation that everything will go the way it is supposed to. His humor is much more on purpose than the rest of the story. He has a magnetic comic timing based on reacting with surprise and confusion. He justifies the absurdness of the plot by proving to the audience that all the goofy insane shit they are seeing is just that: goofy and insane. He is the focal point that allows us not to take the movie to seriously, much like Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness.
Despite all of that, it wouldn’t have hurt to hold back a little. It is as if, by going against his style so much in his previous film, Starman, he went all out for this movie. A number of Asian stereotypes are exploited for the sake of visuals. Kim Cattral and Russell’s Asian buddy barely perform as one-sided archetypes. They are unable to keep up with Russell’s near perfect line reading. It is a chore to watch but not in the usual sense. Russell is the only payoff, but he is totally worth it.