Most cult classics take a fairly linear path to success, but not “Big Trouble in Little China”. After receiving mixed reviews, failing at the box office, and sending director John Carpenter back to his indie roots, in its own time, “Big Trouble in Little China” has gone on to become a widely-beloved relic of the 80’s and one of the most popular American-made martial arts films of that time. It just goes to show that the popular barometers of success rarely give you the full picture, and indeed, may even be proven wrong altogether within a decade or so.
Kurt Russell assumes the role of fast-talking truck driver Jack Burton, while Dennis Dun steals the film as his high-kicking good friend, Wang Chi. James Hong takes on the role of the villainous David Lo Pan, while Suzee Pai appears as Wang’s fiancee Miao Yin, and Kim Cattrall portrays Gracie Law, both of whom find themselves entangled in Lo Pan’s sinister plot. Victor Wong tackles the role of the wise Egg Shen with Donald Li portraying Wang’s friend Eddie Lee, while Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, and James Pax fill out the villainous corner in the roles of the supernatural warriors, Thunder, Rain, and Lightning.
Truck-driver Jack Burton drives into San Francisco’s Chinatown to pay a visit to his good friend, Wang Chi, who owns a Chinese restaurant in the area. However, while accompanying Wang to the airport to pick up his fiancee, Miao Yin, she is inexplicably kidnapped by a gang called the Lords of Death. Things only get worse when they track the gang back to Chinatown and a war erupts between the Chang Sing and Wing Kong gangs whilst a mysterious old man with seemingly supernatural abilities (Lo Pan) survives being hit, head on, by Jack’s truck which is subsequently stolen. It turns out, Lo Pan is an ancient Chinese warrior and sorcerer who was cursed to exist in a non-corporeal form by the Chinese First Emperor; with the only way to break the curse being for Lo Pan to marry a woman with green eyes. With Lo Pan having chosen Miao Yin as his unwilling bride, Jack and Wang set about attempting to rescue Miao Yin and put a stop to Lo Pan once and for all.
Thirty-two years after its initial release, it’s hard to fathom “Big Trouble in Little China” as something that drew mixed reviews, failing to draw much of an audience in its day. However, the home video market and the advent of the internet would grant the film an afterlife that only a true cult classic could achieve, especially with 80’s nostalgia still oft all the pop culture rage nowadays.
In his fourth collaboration with Carpenter, Kurt Russell gives quite arguably his single most quotable performance as the bumbling-yet-headstrong Jack Burton, an irrepressibly energetic trucker who combines the fast-talking attitude of a John McClane with the unwieldy doltishness of Homer Simpson. Burton kicks off the film with his immortal radio monologue aboard his truck, dubbed “The Pork Chop Express”, and as the everyman hero thrust into an impossible battle of ancient Chinese demigods, is both the comic relief and the audience surrogate of the film.
Jack’s endless quips and one-liners not only elicit belly laughs at every turn, but serve as a kind of running narration for the events of the film, Jack always knowing just the right moment to tickle the viewer’s funny bone while making light of just how in over his head he is at every turn. Jack Burton is a true rarity in martial arts films, and indeed, in action-driven films as a whole – a main protagonist who is consistently out of his element, blasting rounds into the air with his machine gun only to be showered with concrete debris, and easily disarmed when holding a knife to a villain’s throat, yet someone the viewer always feels like cheering for and following.
“Big Trouble in Little China” provides another rarity in the form of an Asian sidekick far more adept at combat than the hero leading the charge in the form of Wang Chi. Under James Lew’s fight choreography, the martial arts action of the film is far less punishing than the likes of “Ong Bak” or “The Raid”, but like the film as a whole, has a nice charm to it in its relative simplicity.
“Big Trouble in Little China” might well have been the first American martial arts film to work some wire-fu into the action, and Carpenter knows how to utilize it to service the needs of the story. This is one movie where two sword-wielding enemies horizontally zipping through the air while clashing blades doesn’t feel the slightest bit out of place! If you know your stunt people, familiar faces like Al Leong, Jeff Imada, Eric Lee, and Gerald Okamura are just a few of the familiar faces that pop up in the gang war in Chinatown, and who continually spring up throughout the film like Easter Eggs for every martial arts lover to gleefully point out to their fellow (uninitiated) viewers.
Hong Kong movie fans will also relish the appearance of Carter Wong, who really gets to show his stuff in the film’s abundant battles and weapons demo before the throne of Lo Pan. Wang, however, steals the show as the proverbial Kato to Jack Burton’s Green Hornet, back-flipping and running up walls one minute and blasting his enemies with blindingly swift fists of fury the next. He also gets to show off his skill with a sword in the final free-for-all battle to put a stop to Lo Pan’s plot, with Jack continuing to inject levity into the situation with his equally effective, albeit considerably less coordinated battle tactics.
Whether it’s a yearning for martial arts action with a fantasy twist, a highlight of John Carpenter’s indelible directorial career, or just the ongoing 80’s nostalgia bug that you crave, “Big Trouble in Little China” has something for everyone. Kurt Russell gives perhaps the most thoroughly entertaining, and certainly the most endlessly quotable, performance of his career, and none of the film’s plentiful martial arts battles have less than a half dozen of the world’s most recognizable stunt performers doing what they do best. “Big Trouble in Little China” is the kind of movie that the term “cult classic” was made for!
- John Carpenter directed “Big Trouble in Little China” out of his long-standing desire to make a martial arts film.
- The characters of the Three Storms, Thunder, Rain, and Lighting, would later partially serve as the basis for the character Lord Raiden in the “Mortal Kombat” franchise.
- James Lew served as the film’s fight choreographer.
- Having been impressed by his performance in the film “Year of the Dragon”, John Carpenter cast Dennis Dun in the role of Wang Chi just a few days before the start of principal photography.
- Dennis Dun had “dabbled” in martial arts as a kid and also Chinese Opera as an adult, which he said made the film’s martial arts sequences fairly easy for him to perform.
- Kurt Russell described the character of Jack Burton as a guy who “thinks he’s Indiana Jones but the circumstances are always too much for him.”
- “Nothing or double, Jack.” – Wang Chi (making a friendly bet with Jack Burton.)
- “I’m supposed to buy this sh*t? 2000 years and you can’t find one broad to fit the bill? Come on Dave, you must be doing something wrong!” – Jack Burton (expressing his incredulity that Lo Pan needs a woman with green eyes as his bride.)
- “This is Jack Burton in the Porkchop Express, and I’m talking to whoever’s listening out there.” – Jack Burton (speaking on the Pork Chop Express Radio.)
- “Now I’m not saying I’ve been everywhere and I’ve done everything, but I do know it’s a pretty amazing planet we live on here, and a man would have to be some kind of fool to think we’re all alone in this universe!” – Jack Burton (continuing to speak on the Pork Chop Express Radio.)
- “Okay. You people sit tight, hold the fort and keep the home fires burning. And if we’re not back by dawn, call the president.” – Jack Burton (as he and Wang prepare to rescue Miao Yin.)