Big Trouble In Little China: From Flop To Phenomenon

To celebrate its 30th birthday, here's your definitive look back at the John Carpenter/Kurt Russell cult masterpiece.

“It’s all in the reflexes”

On July 1, 1986, John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China — his fourth collaboration with star Kurt Russell following Elvis, Escape from New York, and The Thing — hit theaters. The film was, and remains, a lot of things, but a box office success was not one of them. Audiences who were more ready to accept traditional blockbusters like that summer’s Aliens and Top Gun had no idea how to react to the film, which Carpenter  referred to as “action/adventure/comedy/kung fu/ghost story/monster movie.” And so, the $25,000,000 investment from Twentieth Century Fox became an oddity that left theaters before it had a chance to connect with moviegoers who would eventually discover it’s genre-mashing charms. 

In honor of the movie’s 30th birthday, let’s take a look back at the history of the film and explore how it had to journey through the Hell of Meddling Studio Execs and Disinterested Audience Members to reach the beloved cult status it enjoys today.

“Yessir, the check is in the mail”

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Big Trouble in Little China originally began life as, weirdly enough, a Western. The first draft from writers Gary Goldman (later of Total Recall and, um, Navy Seals fame) and David Z. Weinstein had Jack Burton arriving in the Old West in search of 1880s Chinatown. To bring it into the then-present day (citing how having it be a Western as well might be one genre bridge to far), famed script doctor W.D. Richter, then coming off of directorial duties on another ’80s-dud-turned-cult-success, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, was brought in to do a drastic rewrite. Goldman and Weinstein balked, and eventually their complaints led to a Writers Guild arbitration hearing which resulted in the pair receiving on-screen credit for their initial work on the movie, with Richter getting an on-screen “adapted by” nod.

This was hardly the only trouble the film experienced before its theatrical release — including a race to get it out before 1986’s rival ancient Asian mysticism flick, Eddie Murphy’s underrated The Golden Child.  But the most infamous example of production woes was studio tampering that attempted to alleviate the “problem” with its lead character, the intentionally non-heroic Jack Burton. Over the years, both Carpenter and Russell have often spoken of Burton’s general ineptitude, mentioning how interesting it is that Big Trouble in Little China‘s ostensible sidekick, Dennis Dunn’s Wang Chi, is the actual hero of the film.

On the DVD and Blu-ray commentary of the film, Carpenter remarks that Burton “thinks he’s a whole lot more capable than he is,” with Russell following up this statement with the much more definitive “he’s useless.” With audiences of the 1980s more familiar with macho death machines like John Rambo than the passive goofball that is Jack Burton, the studio began to get nervous, with then-Fox head Barry Diller instructing Carpenter to film the hasty prologue featuring the Egg Shen character telling a lawyer that “we owe Jack Burton everything.” However, once the film begins properly, Burton is still shown to be more baseless bluster than hero, even if evil is defeated in the end.

(Point to ponder: Is famed libertarian Russell’s John Wayne-esque characterization of Burton a subtle parody of how the Duke’s portrayal of the so-called ideal American actually did more harm to the United States than good?)

With the apprehension of the studio about the strength of the Jack Burton character, surely they went out of their way to get him into the public’s consciousness before the film hit theaters, right? Right? Hello?

“Everybody relax, I’m here”

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Who is Jack Burton? Poster

“There is a hidden world where ancient evil weaves a modern mystery.”

Those words are featured in the film’s misleading trailer, which largely downplays the humor inherent in the flick before the tagline “Jack Burton is coming to rescue your summer.” Of course, at this point nobody knew who the hell Jack Burton was, but that didn’t stop the Fox marketing execs from embarking on a $3 million ad campaign asking audiences “Who Is Jack Burton?” (a question to which Carpenter and Russell delightfully skewer on the start of the film’s audio commentary by saying “who gives a shit?”). You can see one of these newspaper ads above. Interestingly enough, Universal had slightly better success four years later when they employed a similar campaign for Darkman.

Meanwhile, quicker than you can say “awesome vanity project,” The Coupe De Villes — a group consisting of Carpenter and his frequent cohorts Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III)  and Nick Castle (who played Michael Myers in the original Halloween and directed 1986’s The Boy Who Could Fly) released their delightfully dorky music video for the film’s title track. Oddly enough, it didn’t make heavy rotation. Can anyone even confirm it was was featured during MTV’s extensive Attack of the Summer Movies coverage that year?

Despite Fox’s dubious promotional efforts, Jack Burton mania failed to catch on. Alas, the Pork Chop Express rolled into theaters anyway.

“I know, there’s a problem with your face”

On July 1, 1986, Big Trouble in Little China was released amid a disastrous (and, let’s face it, completely off the mark) review by Siskel & Ebert. Jump to the 16:20 mark in the above episode of At the Movies at marvel at how Gene Sikel complains about “the ridiculous amount of special effects in the film” and Roger Ebert asks “why am I supposed to care about these characters?”

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Ouch.

So other than botched marketing by a studio that didn’t entirely understand the film they were releasing, what other reasons can be attributed to the film’s initial failure? It certainly was ahead of its time for sure, and a crowded summer movie marketplace did Big Trouble no favors either. Check out some of its competition during its original release via these movie listings from the summer of ’86:

Summer 1986 Movie Listings

The Karate Kid Part II! Ferris Bueller’s Day Off! Labyrinth! Short Circuit! Um, Pirates!

Well, almost all of these were great releases and have become classics in their own right. Tough competition is brutal enough in its own right. Then Aliens hit two weeks later and that became the genre film of the year.

Not that this was the end for Big Trouble in Little China, not one bit.

Jack Burton on Chinese Takeout Cartons

“This is gonna take crackerjack timing”

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Seemingly realizing that their parent studio screwed up the first time around, CBS Fox home video sent promotional Chinese food containers emblazoned with art from the film to stores across the nation. After all, this was the era of the home video boom, and rentals combined with frequent cable television airings of the film meant that people finally could answer the question of who is Jack Burton?

Word of mouth, articles in zines and publications like Starlog and Cinefantastique helped the film find additional fans too. The cult was growing, and like Burton and company hopped up on a mysterious Egg Shen-created potion, was invincible.

“May the wings of liberty never lose a feather”

Back in 1986, the only swag that was available based on the movie was a promotional pin and a poster that were usually only obtainable at science fiction conventions, as well as the aforementioned soundtrack. Not even a paperback tie-in or movie magazine were available.

Unbelieveably enough, there was a video game however.

Big Trouble in Little China Game

Most widely available on the Commodore 64, the game was a mash-up of Kung Fu Master and the events of the film. Trust me from personal experience though, it’s not nearly as cool as it sounds. Interestingly enough, free hacks of games like Donkey Kong and Bad Dudes has been given Big Trouble in Little China makeovers recently, more information on which can be found here and here.

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Fortunately, the film’s merchandise has only increased along with its reputation. A difficult to find line of acton figures released by Mirage/N2 Toys hit stores briefly in 2002 before vanishing to eBay at marked up prices. The next notable release was BOOM! Studio’s Big Trouble in Little China comic, which serves as the movie sequel we never got (be thankful for that, if this script for a proposed FOX TV movie follow-up is any indication). Debuting in 2014, the book is still going strong despite some creative personnel shifts and it does an impressive job of capturing Jack Burton’s uniquely clueless bluster.

Last year, Funko released a line of their Re-Action figures from the film, with corresponding vinyl Pop! figures to boot. And this year’s 30th celebrations will yield Tara Bennett and Paul Terry’s forthcoming The Official Making of Big Trouble in Little China and The Art of Big Trouble in Little China, both of which hit stores in August.

“We really shook the pillars of heaven, didn’t we?”

Big Trouble in Little China remains a cinematic oddity, a joyous blending of varied styles and genres with a non-traditional hero, an iconic villain (Lo Pan remains a favorite subject of street artists across the U.S.), and is endlessly quotable. Even if the long-threatened remake with The Rock eventually does it theaters, nothing can be done to tarnish the genius of the original. Sooner or later, it rubs everyone the right way.

Chris Cummins is a writer and comics historian. Follow him on Twitter @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.