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March 4, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #61 - Big Trouble in Little China

It's near impossible to describe how much fun I can have watching Big Trouble in Little China.  Being one who is entirely addicted to the work of the great John Carpenter, the film is a unique favorite in which the director shuns most of his usual cynicism to offer a high-paced ode to fantastic Asian cinema of years gone by.  Originally released on the Fourth of July in 1986, the film underperformed at the box office and effectively began Carpenter's downslide with mainstream audiences (both Prince of Darkness and They Live would fail to re-establish Carpenter in Hollywood over the following two years).
 Like those films, Big Trouble in Little China is evidence that John Carpenter was one of the world's most misunderstood filmmakers during the Reagan years in America.  While most of the country was falling in line with the new trend of turning a blockbuster into a franchise (Fox would release James Cameron's Aliens two weeks after BTiLC, burying Carpenter's film at the box office), Carpenter dared to do something unique and different here, and it has taken some time for their product to gain its reputation as an audience pleasing charmer.  Carpenter and star Kurt Russell have both laughed about the film's reception now that time has passed, particularly focusing on the fact that most of the public missed the fact that Russell's Jack Burton is not really the film's hero.
That's not to say Russell doesn't do a great job of portraying an over-confident, loud mouthed descendant of the heroes from western cinema gone by.  A truck driver who likes to gamble in San Francisco's Chinatown, Jack finds himself in the middle of a gang war which includes some ancient supernatural forces.  While Jack's quite good at spitting out one liners like "It's all in the reflexes" (which reminds me of Assault on Precinct 13's Napoleon Wilson repeating "Never argue with a confident man"), he wouldn't have made it out of the first encounter with the forces of evil without the help of his good friend Wang Chi.
Wang Chi is played by Prince of Darkness co-star Dennis Dun, and he's the character that Carpenter and Russell would tell us is the real hero of Big Trouble in Little China.  While he's much quieter than Burton and is less imposing by traditional American standards, the Wang Chi we see in the final act is the kind of winning hero that would impress even a drugged up Charlie Sheen.  As Wang Chi flies around battling the minions of the evil Lo Pan (played by the awesome James Hong of Wayne's World 2!) with a sword and flying feet, he becomes something between Bruce Lee and Luke Skywalker.  Sure, he - like Sheen - has had his powers enhanced by a special brew offered by tour guide/magic man Egg Shen (Victor Wong of 3 Ninjas!) before this final battle, but that doesn't change the fact that Wang Chi fights for love and brings his A-game while Burton struggles to get a corpse off of his fallen body.  The character is a pure hero who's driven to do whatever is needed to free his captured love, but he's sadly left out of most conversations regarding action heroes of the '80s.
When viewing the film from this perspective, with Burton as the comic relief and Wang Chi as the hero, there's something kind of magical about what Carpenter offers with these two characters being polar opposites.  Though the film was originally conceived as a western and is widely known as a kung fu film, it owes plenty to the fantasy films of the '80s as well.  Big Trouble in Little China insists that magic is a real thing and that there are unknown forces all around us, and Carpenter complements these ideas by filling the film with odd creatures and wacky special effects, like . These add to the adventure, but also supplement the comedy by reminding us consistently that Jack Burton - like most Americans - is not open-minded enough to consider the beliefs of those who differ from them. 
When you break it down, Big Trouble in Little China really is one big joke about American over-confidence, and it's a shame that so few people were in on the gag upon the film's release.  Nearly twenty-five years later, Big Trouble in Little China has gained a cult reputation - Heck, it's on the blu-ray rack at your local Wal-Mart! - but there's still never a bad time to give it a little more love.  If you take a look at the newspaper headlines, I'm sure you'll find plenty of the same American troubles we saw in the mid '80s - and Big Trouble in Little China is still a great diversion that should be able to help you leave reality behind for a couple of hours. 


R.D. Penning said...

oh the awesomeness!!!

-Lou said...

Real good call here. This is one of those flicks where you'll hear people say "What a bomb" or "That movie sucked" only to find out they've never actually seen the movie- they're only going on the film's reputation as a box office flop.

Emily said...

I really need to see this film again soon! It was so much fun to watch the first time, and I have that it'll get even better with repeated viewings! ...and I think I've been suffering from Russell-withdrawal, so I need to cure that quickly.

The Mike said...

Thanks all. I'm glad we can all agree this is uber-fun. I can't imagine living as someone who doesn't appreciate its brand of coolness.