BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986) marked the fourth time director John Carpenter worked with actor Kurt Russell, following ELVIS (1979), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), and THE THING (1982).
Whereas time has been kind to both ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING—THE THING is often ranked #1 on horror fans’ “Favorite Horror Movie” lists— when they first came out, neither film was a hit. In fact, THE THING was a box office bomb.
Kurt Russell wasn’t faring much better in 1986. He had just come off a string of films that had performed very poorly at the box office, and the story goes that he was so worried about his box office slump that he told Carpenter to get someone else to star in BIG TROUBLE, but Carpenter told him not to worry, that he wanted him to star in the movie.
I wish I could say that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was a huge hit and rejuvenated the careers of both these artists, but that’s not what happened. Like their previous few films, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA also tanked at the box office.
But like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA has enjoyed a resurgence. Fans nowadays like this movie. I saw it when it first came out, and I did not like it. I liked it so little that I never bothered to watch it again.
And that’s because I’ve been hearing fans say good things about the movie, and I thought it was high time I gave it a second viewing.
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a strange movie. It’s an action adventure that takes place in Chinatown, San Francisco and involves Chinese mysticism, which gives the film a supernatural element. It’s also a comedy, meaning that the entire thing is played for laughs.
Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) go to the airport to pick up Wang’s girlfriend, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai). While there, Jack flirts with a woman named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) which provides him with a few minutes of fun before a Chinese gang shows up and kidnaps Miao.
Jack and Wang give chase, but the gang eludes them and gets away with Miao. Wang vows to get her back, and Jack agrees to help him. I guess no one thought to call the police. Anyway, Gracie Law shows up at their doorstep and reveals that she’s a lawyer who knows all about the Chinese mystical underworld, and she wants to help Jack and Wang as well. They also receive help from Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a bus driver who’s also an expert on Chinese sorcery.
They need all this help because Miao has been kidnapped by David Lo Pan (James Hong), a two thousand year-old sorcerer who’s cursed to walk the earth without his physical body. To lift the curse, he has to marry a girl with green eyes, which is why he kidnapped Miao, because she has green eyes. It turns out that Gracie Law also has green eyes. Suddenly Lo Pan has more choices than he knows what to do with. Life is good. For a while, anyway, as soon Jack and Wang show up, and they’re all about taking down Lo Pan and his supernatural army. Good luck with that!
As I said, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is played for laughs. There isn’t a serious bone in this one’s body.
At first, I was really enjoying this one, and during the movie’s first half, I thought my opinion of it would change. What wasn’t to like? It was full of 1980s nostalgia, it had Kurt Russell, lots of colorful martial art action scenes, monsters, supernatural goings on, and a neat music score by John Carpenter.
But midway through, the movie runs out of gas, and I remembered why I didn’t really like this one back in 1986. The martial arts action scenes start to get repetitive, and a major reason why is they’re simply not very good.
The script by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein also fizzles. Early on, things are mysterious, and the dialogue is rapid fire funny, but later, once you know Lo Pan’s story, it’s pretty ridiculous, even it if is played for laughs. I’ve seen more believable plots on SCOOBY DOO. And the humor definitely loses its edge, mostly because after a while it’s simply Jack and Wang dealing with one unbelivable situation after another.
The film definitely gets goofier as it goes along, becoming flat our silly rather than focusing on the action and the adventure. Had this one had more of an edge to it, and kept the humor in the background, it would have worked better.
Kurt Russell based Jack Burton on John Wayne, and it’s apparent right from the get-go. Russell is fun to watch here because he really does capture the Duke’s onscreen persona. Similarly, Russell based Snake Plissken in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK on Clint Eastwood, which is also clearly apparent.
Things would change for Russell with his next movie, the hit comedy OVERBOARD (1987) in which he starred with Goldie Hawn. And a series of hits would follow Russell over the next five years.
While Russell is entetaining in BIG TROUBLE, Dennis Dun is just OK as Wang Chi. He lacks Russell’s charisma and larger than life qualities, which is too bad because one of the movie’s jokes is that Jack thinks he’s the hero, yet he’s constantly messing things up, and it’s Wang who’s the true hero in the movie, but at times, Dun doesn’t make this notion all that believable.
Kim Cattrall is the epitome of 1980s actresses, and she fits right in here. She’s got the 80s hairstyle, and she plays Gracie Law with a mixture of strength and ditziness. She could easily walk into the CHEERS bar for a drink.
Victor Wong is sufficiently knowledgable as Egg Shen, but James Hong is rather ineffective as main baddie David Lo Pan. He spends most of the time behind make-up and special effects.
The special effects are OK. They run hot and cold, and they’re really cheesy. I guess that’s part of the charm for some people.
So, after my second viewing, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA remains not one of my favorite John Carpenter movies. Sadly, Carpenter would follow this up with the even worse PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987). It would be a little while before Carpenter would find his stride again, and that would be with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1995).
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA means well. It’s got tons of energy, and everyone looks like they’re having a grand old time. But as the action becomes flat out goofy, the story doesn’t hold up, and the script doesn’t match the film’s inanity, as the dialogue and situations are never that funny, it all becomes rather tedious long before the end credits roll.
The trouble in Little China just isn’t all that big.