On paper, this week’s entry should be a total failure. It features a former child actor, a hackneyed kung fu plot, and some special effects that are economical at best. Add to that some vague Chinese mythology as the backdrop and a soundtrack that was composed by the director and his editor and it should be garbage.
But when that child actor is Kurt Russell and the director is John Carpenter, the result is one of the campiest, most likable movies around, “Big Trouble In Little China.”
Russell stars as Jack Burton, a hard-driving trucker with a penchant for meandering, long-winded speeches into his CB to no one in particular. Russell could have played Burton as a straight action hero, but through Carpenter’s script and direction and Russell’s own charm, Burton is instead a bumbling idiot and the movie is all the better for it.
We first meet our hero cruising toward San Fransisco’s Chinatown in his trusty 18-wheeler, The Porkchop Express. After Burton delivers a textbook speech, he meets his buddy Wang for some wanton gambling and drinking. Eventually the two end up at the airport to pick up Wang’s mail-order bride. It’s here we meet Gracie Law, played by a pre-”Sex and The City” Kim Cattrall.
Wang’s girl is kidnapped by a Chinese gang and then things get a little weird. Turns out, Burton has stumbled into a gang war between Chinese factions and a plot to resurrect David Lo Pan, a sorcerer who is already resurrected. Here’s Burton’s first encounter (the ones in yellow are the good guys):
I don’t think anyone would consider “Big Trouble In Little China” to be a good movie in the classical sense of the word. After all, it’s cheaply made, excessively silly, and completely nonsensical, but it is a lot of fun and completely self aware, two features that go a long way in making a cult classic. Russell is clearly having fun here and Carpenter’s direction is loose, but kinetic. But the clear scene stealer in “Big Trouble in Little China” is veteran character actor James Hong as Lo Pan. Here, Lo Pan is confronted by Egg Shen, a sorcerer/tour guide allied with Burton:
Just look at how much fun Hong is having. The thumb gestures, the crazed look in his eyes, his hilarious delivery, all go create an antagonist that you actually look forward to watching. What’s more, Hong maintains that level or deranged excitement for the entirety of the movie.
Russell does his damnedest to keep up with Hong and for the most part, he succeeds, mostly because his character stands in stark contrast to the type of isolated, deliberate antiheroes he played in previous Carpenter outings “Escape From New York” and “The Thing,” two excellent movies completely worthy of every positive thing ever said about them.
Russell’s Burton is a bumbler, sure, but he’s a lovable one. Russell embraces the situations Carpenter puts his character through and comes out with some memorable one-liners and some truly hilarious expressions. If Burton has anything going for him, it’s definitely his keen reflexes.
The result is the perfect kind of late night movie. “Big Trouble In Little China” is the type of movie that works great in the background while you’re chatting with friends, getting a drink, or whatever other distractions are necessary to keep a person awake at 4 a.m. It’s dumb, loose, lovingly made fun.
Bonus: John Carpenter’s band The Coupe De Villes did the soundtrack and they cut a pretty wicked music video to go with it.