For this weeks edition of Thursday Thunderdome, we look at one of John Carpenter’s most beloved cult classics – a man whose filmography has a spine of beloved cult classics. This kung fu horror comedy wasn’t very successful upon its release in 1986, whereas nowadays it stands atop its own pedestal in annals of genre cinema. An immortal B movie god that will stand mightily forever, emblazoned and glorious. That being said, film is subjective and not everybody is going to appreciate Big Trouble in Little China. Stepping into the cage this week are Mike and Edward. Whose side are you on?
Up first is Mike, in unabashed praise of the film.
Every now and then someone is going to come along and say that they don’t like Big Trouble in Little China. They’re gonna walk up to you, head held high, put their hands on their hips and say “I just don’t like that movie”. And do you know what you do when this happens? You look them right square in the eye and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton would say: “Are you nuts? Because I’ve never heard anything that insane in my life”.
Seriously. How anyone can dislike this movie is hard to fathom as it has a little bit of something for everyone. Horror? Check. Sci-fi? Check. Martial arts? Check. Romance, adventure, comedy – check, check and check. This is like the greatest stir-fry of cinematic genres ever. It even comes with some memorable fortune cookie wisdom one-liners like “Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it’s all in the reflexes”, thanks to the hero, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell).
Wait, hero? Scratch that. Jack’s no hero. Well, okay, he is A hero, but he’s not THE hero – not of this adventure, at least. That honor goes to Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), Jack’s friend. It’s Wang’s world that Jack finds himself in when his beloved truck, the Pork Chop Express, is stolen and it’s Wang’s war against Lo Pan (James Hong), the Wing Kong and “the Three Storms” that he finds himself stumbling through.
It’s easy to see why some people might not appreciate Big Trouble for what it is, though. When you have a pedigree that includes Halloween, The Fog, Christine, The Thing and Escape From New York you expect a certain tone to be set. Add to the fact that Kurt Russell appeared in TWO of those and it’s no stretch to want more MacReady Plissken chasing a body-jumping alien around the streets of a nihilistic New York City. The fact that Big Trouble ISN’T what we expect is part of what makes it such a good movie. And now, in an age where Hollywood is lambasted for unoriginal and derivative clap-trap, something like this should shine brighter than ghostly lights coming from Lo Pan’s eyes and mouth.
But at the heart of Big Trouble, what REALLY makes it click, is Kurt Russell’s performance. Aside from a couple of comedies in the early 80s, Russell was making strides in distancing himself from his Disney movies. Movies like Silkwood and The Mean Season (in addition to the two earlier Carpenter movies) were a huge departure from the character of Dexter Riley and so to step into a character like Jack Burton and to pull it off so well is a testament to what he brings to the table. He perfectly brings to life that guy who daydreams of being Indiana Jones and who, when finally afforded the opportunity, can’t quite deliver. Except, somehow, he does. Jack Burton is to being a truck driving adventurer as Maxwell Smart is to being a spy. It’s his “everyman” charm and obliviousness to being the sidekick that elevates Big Trouble in Little China to a spot where few movies are able to climb to. Jack Burton is what we’d look like in the same situation, only probably a little cooler and little funnier. Soylent Green may be people, but Jack Burton — man, Jack Burton is US!
Next up we have Edward, who doesn’t feel the same way…
I’m a fan of campy 80s movies. I find bad special effects more amusing than annoying. I’ll take Snakes on a Plane over Mulholland Drive any day. Considering my tastes, Big Trouble in Little China should be exactly the sort of movie I would love.
So when I watched the movie for the first time recently, I was surprised to find I spent most of the movie waiting for it to end.
“So-bad-it’s-good” movies fall into two basic categories: films that try to emulate a genre but fail so bad as to reach the level of comedy (Battlefield earth, Manos: The Hands of Fate, The Wicker Man (2006), etc.), and films that are intentionally campy (Army of Darkness, Kung Fury, The Expendables, etc.). Big Trouble in Little China was clearly aimed at this latter category.
Intentionally “bad” movies usually border on parody. They work by exaggerating the tropes of a particular genre. This is why so many of these movies fall into the horror or action genres, as they are well suited to such exaggerations.
The big trouble with Big Trouble is that half of the exaggeration relies on lame Charlie Chan style Asian stereotypes that just aren’t that funny. The movie’s villains are epitome of this. There seems to have been almost no thought put into these characters other than to give them funny hats.
To clarify, I’m not trying to criticize the film for racial insensitivity. For the time period, it might even be considered progressive in that regard. I’m just saying that the exaggerated stereotypes didn’t pay off with any real humor.
Without that payoff, Kurt Russell as the bumbling Jack Burton is all that’s left to redeem the film. This brings me to what I feel is the final nail in the coffin: a serious lack of decent one-liners.
Jack Burton has a penchant for rambling third-person soliloquies that are suppose to be funny, but it doesn’t produce any good lines. His rambling borders on being meaningless babble and lacks enough underlying wit to make it memorable. His catch phrase, “It’s all in the reflexes”, is dull, and Kurt Russell’s John Wayne style delivery is too matter-of-fact to make it interesting or funny.
Perhaps if I had watched this movie when I was an adolescent the lens of nostalgia would make it seem more appealing. As it is, it felt like watching people run around a giant Chinese restaurant aimlessly for an hour and a half.