Underappreciated movies: Big Trouble in Little China

The darkest magic, the biggest trouble: Mark Pickavance talks about a John Carpenter movie that's like no other he's made, or anyone else has either...

Big Trouble in Little China

Despite some less than stellar outings recently (Escape from LA), John Carpenter has directed some of the movies I’ve enjoyed most. Halloween, Escape From New York, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing makes for a track record some directors would gleefully kill for. But one of his movies never got the acclaim I think it deserves, and I’d like to remind people that it’s a classic.

Big Trouble in Little China had a weirdly accurate by-line. It was promoted as a Mystical, Action, Adventure, Comedy, Kung Fu, Monster, Ghost Story! If you’ve never seen it then that’s exactly what you get. And what a curious blending it is…

The story of truck driver Jack Burton, and how he comes to take on the darkest of oriental magic Lo Pan, plays off characters and actors that Carpenter filled his previous movies with. Kurt Russell plays the very antithesis of his Snake Plisskin persona; Jack Burton is a man with all the bravado of Snake but none of his moves or abilities. He’s injected into a Hong Kong martial arts movie that has characters from Chinese mythology roaming the streets and subterranean world of San Francisco. Helping his friend Wang after the kidnapping of his hot girlfriend, Jack comes up against the Lo Pan’s mythical henchmen, the three storms: Lightning, Thunder and Rain. Meanwhile Lo Pan plans to marry the girl with green eyes, and make himself mortal again.

So what makes it special? There are some superb small character roles, which are brilliantly slick. Victor Wong as Egg Shen, Chao Li Chi as Uncle Chu and Donald Lee as Eddie all play their part in providing a running commentary of the entirely weird nature of events, but the queens of exposition are Kim Cattrall and Kate Burton as the determined but utterly clueless Gracie and Margot respectively. Despite being the love interest Gracie is the foil for many cutting comments, but also a charming counterpoint to the macho posturing of the men and the absurdness of events.

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Given that it would have been easy for Carpenter to have found adequate US based actors for some of the martial arts work, it’s great that he decided instead to source the ‘real deal’ from HK. Carter Wong (Thunder), was once a martial arts instructor for the HK police, Peter Kwong (Rain) is an Asian TV veteran and James Pax (Lightning) is a Japanese martial arts expert and performer. The elegance and presence these three bring to the scenes they’re in elevates the entire proceedings and give, to an entirely western eye, a more authentic feel to the proceedings. The kata sequence before the burning blade is exactly one of these scenes, where we see what years of practice can get you to those dedicated to these disciplines.

But the glue that makes the entire movie work is the amazing James Hong as David Lo Pan, in both his ‘The little old basket case on wheels or the ten foot tall roadblock’ forms, as Jack puts it. He plays Lo Pan with such obvious delight that we’re drawn to believe this is a cursed man driven possibly insane by waiting thousands of years to find the right girl with green eyes. While Russell was the hook to get people in the cinema, this isn’t a one man show like Escape, but an amazing ensemble piece where even the smallest parts contribute something special, and the briefest exchanges use beautifully crafted dialogue. Yes, I’ll accept there are some parts and effects that just don’t work, but the majority of the film’s elements dovetail gloriously in a manner that few other directors can achieve. I think it’s a production of which John Carpenter and his writers (Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein) should be genuinely proud, and I suspect they are.

But sadly, despite my personal liking for this film, the box office takings were low – a dismal $11.6M – as I’m not entirely sure Fox understood how to market it. And as such, a sequel isn’t a commercial possibility, despite Carpenter suggesting in numerous interviews that he’d like to return to these characters one day.

We might never get another Big Trouble, but we’re left with some solid advice from Jack Burton. When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favourite head up against the bar room wall, looks you crooked in the eye and asks you if you paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: “Yessir, the check is in the mail.”