Film Review: Big Trouble in Little China

David Lo Pan (James Hong)

“Big Trouble in Little China” by warpafx is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As a director, John Carpenter is very much hit and miss when it comes to critical acclaim and box office success. For every Halloween and Escape from New York, there is a Ghosts of Mars and a Village of the Damned. He is undeniably one of the masters of the horror genre, having pioneered the slasher flick, and made one of the best early science fiction/horror films (the Thing). His earlier films were generally low budget affairs, relying on young fresh acting talent, and good use of limited special effects along with his signature eerie electronic musical scores, in fact he seemed to produce less favourable movies when big studios started throwing lots money at him. A genuine talent when it comes to the cinematic arts, he has not only directed over 30 features, he has also written, composed, produced and acted in many more.

This wont be a particularly impartial review, as I would count Big Trouble in Little China as one of my all time top ten favourite films. Made for a not inconsiderable $25,000,000 in 1986, it failed miserably at the box office, recouping less than half of the total outlay worldwide. However, the film gained cult status in the years that followed, eventually earning its money back through video and DVD sales, and was so successful in the end that a sequel was proposed, with a rough script drafted, but sadly the idea never went any further.

It was a bit of a departure for Carpenter, having been known for his tense thrillers and classic horror pictures. The film combined elements of action, comedy, fantasy and horror into a really entertaining classic adventure story, where good triumphs over evil and everybody lives happily ever after (well sort of). Starring long time Carpenter collaborator Kurt Russell as the ‘hero’ Jack Burton, with excellent support from newcomer Dennis Dun as restaurant owner (and expert martial artist) Wang Chi, the gorgeous Kim Cattrall as the feisty civil rights Lawyer Gracie Law, and a wonderfully over the top turn by the always good James Hong as the dastardly David Lo Pan. The film takes place in and around San Francisco’s China Town, with a lot of familiar faces in minor roles, and any Hong Kong martial arts film fans are sure to see at least a few people they recognise.

The storyline delves deeply into Chinese culture and mysticism, with the central theme being about an ancient evil sorcerer attempting to break a 2000 year old curse, set to the backdrop of an ongoing gang feud between two rival factions on the streets of modern day San Francisco. Russell’s character is (at first) unwillingly drawn into the plot when his friend (who owes him money after a night of gambling) witnesses his fiancé get kidnapped by some thugs and needs help to free her. As the pair get pulled deeper into the mystical world inhabited by the evil sorcerer and his three elemental bodyguards, the greater the action and fantasy elements become. Of course, there is a climactic battle scene, which really is a fantastic set piece, played in equal measures for thrills and laughs. The film also draws heavily on classic Japanese and Chinese cinema, but much more of a respectful homage than a send up or rip off like some films become when they look to the past for ideas.

A common problem during filming was interference from the studio bosses, and this was an issue that hampered the film long after cameras finished rolling. The writers had wanted to make a much different film from the finished article, with the idea to make a sort of homage to classic western films but with a twist: The hero wasn’t to be some square jawed cowboy, but the humble and unassuming Chinaman. The decision was taken to set the film in the modern era due to budgetary and time constraints, but the production team sort of got their way with one thing, the real hero of the day is Russell’s co-star Dennis Dun. He may not get top billing, but there can be no doubt that he and his mentor Egg Shen (Victor Wong) are the real heroes of the film, fulfilling their destiny to rid the world of the ancient evil once and for all. In fact, if it wasn’t for more studio executive meddling, Russell’s character would have been a very different one to what we see on screen.

Kurt Russell was really the only choice for John Carpenter to take the lead role. Rumour has it that he turned down the offer to star as Connor MacLeod in Highlander to take the part, despite reservations about the script. Such was his good relationship with Carpenter that he chose to turn down the much higher profile Highlander, another decision that irked the studio executives. From the off, Russell plays the character for laughs. All wise cracks and bravado, he delivers all of his dialogue with a self-assuredness bordering on arrogance. Russell was given license to adlib some of his lines, something that he clearly relishes as the corpsing of his co-stars is quite apparent at certain points in the film and I think they left these ‘goofs’ in on purpose to add to the fun factor. There are several genuine laugh out loud moments where he gets to play up to the camera, including the final battle which he almost completely misses, reviving in time to help win the day. The studio made sure that some of the more ridiculous moments were toned down, and they also didn’t think the public would react well to the Chinese co star being the main hero, so script rewrites and extra scenes were filmed to make Burton a more heroic, but still faintly ridiculous character.

For me, the best elements of the film are the action set pieces. The street battle near the beginning of the film is faced paced and thrilling, and the fantasy elements really set it apart from other action films from the period. It is quite fast paced throughout, with only a few moments where no one is brandishing a gun or a sword, and this helps to keep the film going, along with some snappy dialogue, and a good chemistry between the main actors. The special effects, which are a particular highlight of any John Carpenter film are really good for the time, although in the era of CGI, they do tend to look a little dated now. This accounted for a small percentage of the budget and wasn’t a huge amount but they made the most of it by using some cutting edge puppetry and camera tricks. The score is also really well matched to the story, combining elements of rock, traditional Chinese music and electronic synth sounds, and Carpenter even had modest success as a recording artist, releasing the films title song with his band the Coupe De Villes into the US chart.

Once the film went into post production, delays put back the release date, while a certification of PG-13 in the USA arguably restricted its box office potential (although this rating was probably fair at the time), putting it in the awkward too scary for children but not gritty enough for adults category. Although advanced screenings were roundly positively received, the decision to release the film at around the same time as James Cameron’s much hyped Aliens didn’t do it any favours, along with a very lacklustre attempt at promotion by the distributor. The director moved away from mainstream films after its release, only coming back to Hollywood 10 years later, reuniting with star Kurt Russell to make the fantastic Escape from LA. At 1 hour and 39 minutes, the running time is just about right. It doesn’t feel padded out at all, but it always flows at a good pace, and for a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously that’s important.

Oscar winning, loved by the critics and (initially) financially successful, none of these things are true, but who cares what the glitterati think? As a young lad, watching a grainy copy of this film that my dad had taped off the telly for the first time, I was in equal parts thrilled, amused and a little bit scared. I have always loved fantasy films, and at the time was just getting into kung fu and martial arts, especially the cheesy Hong Kong flicks of the 70s and 80s. This ticked all the boxes for me, and I can still watch it all these years later with a smile on my face. If you have already seen it, I recommend getting the DVD or Bluray and watching the behind the scenes shorts and directors commentary, they add an extra dimension to the whole thing and the contributors are refreshingly honest about their work. They don’t make them like this anymore and mores the pity.

© Columba Palumbus 2021

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file