by Mel Valentin
John Carpenter’s genre-bending (and genre-blending) action/adventure/fantasy/martial arts/comedy, "Big Trouble in Little China," was released in 1986 to mixed, if overall positive, reviews, but failed to bring in audiences in sufficient numbers to cover the mid-range budget (Carpenter's largest at that point in his career), despite a wry, ironic, subversive lead performance by Kurt Russell as an ineffectual action hero who’s (mostly) all talk and no action. The passage of time, however, has been more than kind to "Big Trouble in Little China." Like 1982's "The Thing," a box-office disappointment turned cult classic, "Big Trouble in Little China" has developed a small, devoted fan base. "Big Trouble in Little China" may just be John Carpenter’s most entertaining film, repaying multiple viewings with an over-abundance of narrative and visual pleasures.As Big Trouble in Little China opens, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), an everyman truck-driver (and the ostensible hero/protagonist) arrives in San Francisco to drop off cargo in Chinatown. At the conclusion of a celebratory evening (and morning) of drinking and gambling where Jack wins big, the other men leave, broke and none too happy with their losses, Jack’s stays behind with his longtime friend, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), a local restaurant owner (as we soon learn, Wang Chi’s a man of many talents). Wang Chi makes Jack an odd wager, a double or nothing bet Wang loses. Jack, eager to collect his winnings and uncomfortable with letting Wang out of his sight, is convinced to accompany Wang to the airport, where Wang's fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), is about to arrive from China. Miao Yin is the rarest of Chinese women. She has emerald green eyes.
"Hands (or pants) down John Carpenter's most entertaining film."
At the airport, Jack encounters Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), an immigration attorney (and part-time troublemaker). Gracie rebuffs Jack's one-liner. In the next beat, a Chinese gang, the Lords of Death, brush roughly past the slightly perturbed Jack. Jack confronts them, only to find himself overmatched and in need of Wang's superior martial arts skills. In the mayhem, the Lords of Death grab Miao Yin, sending Jack and Wang back to Chinatown, where the first of many supernatural events upend Jack's worldview. Stuck in a tight alleyway, Jack and Wang watch rival gangs, the Chang Sing and the Wing Kong, engage in a battle. Enter Thunder (Carter Wong), Rain (Peter Kwong), Lightning (James Pax), three mystical warriors with extraordinary powers. Thunder, Rain, and Lightning serve David Lo Pan (James Hong), a godfather-like figure with a double nature. In their hasty retreat, Jack loses his most important possession, his truck, to the Lords of Death.
Jack, of course, wants his truck back and help Wang Chi recover Miao Yin, but his pride also needs mending. To repair his ego, Jack goes into action-hero mode, despite a distinct shortage of martial arts skills, let alone any understanding of the supernatural forces arrayed against him and his friend. Jack's ignorance is to our benefit, as his constant head scratching and incredulous outbursts lead to cleverly delivered exposition by Wang Chi and a rumpled, slightly disheveled sorcerer/tour bus driver, Egg Shen (Victor Wong). Egg Shen delivers more than his share of witticisms, making him, like Jack, Wang Chi, and the peevish, frustrated David Lo Pan, the most memorable characters in Big Trouble in Little China and in Carpenter's oeuvre. Big Trouble in Little China turns on not one, not two, but three search-and-rescue missions, with the expected martial arts battle between warring groups rounding out the action. The performers fly on wires, jump on trampolines, and swordfight in mid-air, adding more than a touch of the absurd and the parodic to the fight scenes, but that's in keeping with Big Trouble in Little China's feather-light tone.
Big Trouble in Little China has much to recommend first and repeat viewings, beginning with the witty, irreverent dialogue, with a great deal of the humor coming at Jack Burton's expense. Jack's pretensions to action-hero machismo are often met with disbelief, laughter, or both. Jack is essentially the "sidekick" to Wang's hero, but he doesn't know it. He stumbles his way through the film, but Russell's blustery, pitch-perfect performance never crosses over into caricature (which would make him a buffoon). In less sure hands, the almost delirious mix of usually disparate genres, action/adventure, martial arts, fantasy, and comedy would almost surely fail, but thanks to a well-crafted script by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein (with an adaptation by W.D. "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai" Richter) and typically assured, unobtrusive direction by John Carpenter, the end result is a nearly flawless mini-masterpiece that draws the audience into Jack's adventures and misadventures.Ultimately, even fans of Carpenter’s work in the horror genre are forced to admit that "Big Trouble in Little China" may be Carpenter’s best film (with the possible exceptions of "The Thing" or "Halloween," but both of those films are firmly within the horror genre). After all, how many films in any director's work can sustain effervescent good cheer from the first frame to the last (book-ended by Jack's pontificating over a CB radio as he drives his pride and joy, the Pork Chop Express, out of San Francisco to parts unknown, moments after leaving his potential relationship with Gracie open-ended)? Alas, "Big Trouble in Little China’s" disappointing box-office returns means that Jack's adventures ended in 1986, without the likelihood of a sequel (other media, e.g., comic books or videogame adaptations, are presumably still possibilities).
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originally posted: 12/05/05 08:38:53