Big Trouble in Little China

4 out of 5

Directed by: John Carpenter

I used to watch Big Trouble in Little China on repeat on TNT when I was a kid. I saw Escape from L.A. way before New York, and literal decades before I had any clue what Halloween was.

Years later, when I would connect the dots from The Thing to The Fog and others, I had trouble reconciling these goofier movies with these masterful horror cuts, and also separating my nostalgia for Big Trouble from its fandom: did I actually like this movie? It seemed pretty rough and hokey at a second glance, and I couldn’t really tell.

It is rough and hokey. A re-examination of Carpenter’s oeuvre from a less horror-diehard perspective shows this to be true for a lot of his flicks in certain regards, which is part of the director’s works’ charm: he brings a level of everydayness to even the most out there concepts, which can be applied to B-styled ham like Big Trouble, or the endless terrors of The Thing, equally effective for their various genres. And so do I really like Big Trouble in Little China? Damn right I do. Although I do think it very much benefits from the fact that it gets significantly better the further you get into it, leaving a good memory that encourages reviewings… and then those subsequent viewings you know what to expect, so it’s shakier bits seem less-so, and you’re geared for the nonsense right away.

Jack Burton – Kurt Russell – is a “wisdom”-slingin’ truck driver, hanging around to get paid on a bet he’d made with buddy Wang (Dennis Dun), and then suddenly mixed up in the mix-up between two green-eyed ladies – Kim Cattrall’s Gracie Law and Suzee Pai’s as Miao Yin – and the Chinatown gangs that end up kidnapping them. That could be semi-serious setup for some 80s brawler, but Jack’s truck is “The Pork Chop Express,” he likes to talk about himself in the third person, said gangs seem to employ three magical sorcerers and the immortal Lo Pan (James Hong), and any given fight scene seems to kick off with Jack knocking himself out. Big Trouble is a farce, and while you’re figuring this out, Carpenter lets some sloppy fight scenes loll by, and the movie – whether scripted or edited as such – forgets to explain who these characters are, and just substitutes general moves that indicate “villain,” and “love interest,” and etcetera. That’s that first rough half hour, when it can be harder to parse what to expect from the film.

But: Carpenter leverages that loosey-goosey approach to push things into a unique world of silly wire-fu and creative spectacle, with Kurt Russell’s purposefully straight-faced take on Burton (who, as it goes, doesn’t realize he’s actually the side character in the story, and not the hero) adding to the effect; a half-hour in, Jack has donned a disguise – for no clear reason – to go undercover in a brothel, and then there’s an underground labyrinth stocked with creatures, and kung-fu showdowns with people flying through the air, and we see Carpenter emerge again as a masterful filmmaker, juggling all of this so that it becomes a non-stop thrill-ride, with tons of laughs, perfectly executed by a cast all in on the joke.