Big Trouble in Little China (1986) Movie Review

I have seen John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China more than 30 times, and each time it comes on TV I am fixated to the screen and unable to turn away. It is not the best movie ever made, is not even the funniest, or the best kung fu film ever. I am at a loss to describe how much I cherish this film, how much it makes me laugh in the same spots every single time I see it, regardless of how many times I’ve seen the same joke or heard the same line of dialogue. If I haven’t made myself clear, I love this film!

Big Trouble in Little China stars Kurt Russell as Jack Burton, a loudmouth truck driver who makes daily deliveries to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where he hangs out with Wang (Dennis Dun). When Wang owes Jack money after a hard night of gambling, Jack tags along to the airport where Wang is expecting his fianc’e to arrive from China to ensure Wang doesn’t skip out on his debt.

No sooner does the duo arrive at the airport does a group of Chinese gangbangers called the “Lords of Death” abduct Wang’s fianc’e and flees back to Chinatown. The duo gives chase, and runs right into the middle of a turf war between two traditional Chinese gangs, one in red turbans, and the other in yellow. Caught in the middle, Jack and Wang watches as three super powered Chinese men appear out of nowhere to break up the fight. Oh, and the newcomers are led by a 7-foot tall man name Lo Pan, who legend has it is a demon trying to make his way back to the land of the living by sacrificing a girl with green eyes — namely Wang’s fianc’e. Get all that?

As another movie once remarked, “Don’t ask, it’s Chinatown.” Meaning, of course, that Chinatown has its own rules and subculture, and if you’re not Chinese, or if you don’t live there, you should stop trying to figure Chinatown out. Of course Big Trouble in Little China is not a serious film, and it doesn’t delve into any serious themes about Chinatown. Instead, the film goes for comedy and action, and manages to balance both superbly.

Big Trouble in Little China is at its funniest when it’s poking fun at the Caucasian characters, played by Russell and Kim Cattrall, who plays a nosy Chinatown lawyer name Gracie Law. (In one scene, Dennis Dun’s character remarks about Law: “She’s crazy! She’s a lawyer!”) The movie shifts into action gear when the Chinese are onscreen and doing their martial arts thing, and in-between we get plenty of snappy dialogue, memorable one-liners, and a lot of foolishness. This is great stuff!

The one thing Big Trouble in Little China is most known for is its transformation of ’80s action star Kurt Russell into a bumbling loudmouth truck driver with absolutely no sense and even less physical ability. Russell’s Jack Burton talks a big game and swaggers as a matter of course, but when the chips are down the man is so incompetent that he’s liable to kill himself before he kills the other guy. And yet, Jack is so damn likeable it’s hard not to laugh at his lame jokes and braggart behavior, and it’s difficult not to embrace his total lack of common sense and complete absence of subtlety.

Co-starring is Dennis Dun, who had a good career going in the ’80s, but seems to have disappeared completely off the map since. Dun plays Wang, a restaurateur who turns out to be something of a martial artist and master swordsman. The movie makes great comedy fodder out of Jack’s ability to get the duo into trouble and Wang’s ability to get them out of it.

That isn’t to say Big Trouble in Little China is a masterpiece of filmmaking. It’s quite bad in some places, and its 16-years shows. The movie is very heavy on special effects, especially when it involves the Three Storms, the 3 super powered Chinese. The Three Storms are in the service of the evil Lo Pan, and possesses superpowers and abilities such as the control of lightning and wind. Which leads me to the movie’s mumble jumbo Eastern mysticism. Yes, it’s all quite ridiculous, but taken as a whole with the film’s goofball aura, it works just fine.

The movie co-stars James Hong as the devilish Lo Pan and Victor Wong as Egg Shen, the Chinatown tour bus driver who turns out to be something much more. Kim Cattrall’s Gracie Law is a source of a lot of comedy, much like Jack Burton. In fact, you could probably say Big Trouble in Little China’s Caucasian cast is the butt of many jokes, which is something of an anomaly in movies dealing with Asians, where the Asians tend to be stereotyped to the nth degree. The action in Big Trouble in Little China ranges from quite impressive (Dun’s swordfight with one of the Three Storms), to a little silly (the gang fight in the beginning). The special effects, even by ’80s standards, sometimes looks too cheap, but the most impressive of the bunch is the lightning effect of one of the Three Storms, who quite literally flies around on — as well as shoots out of his hands — bolts of lightning.

Big Trouble in Little China is one of those movies that you can’t get enough of, but can’t quite explain why. I’m not sure rather it’s the comedy or the action or the combination of both that prevents me from turning the channel whenever it comes on. If you haven’t seen it before, don’t miss out on the hilarity that is Jack Burton, because this movie oozes coolness, and I’ve yet to come across another movie that I’m so heads over heels in love with.

As Jack Burton always says, “Watch this film!”

John Carpenter (director) / Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W.D. Richter (screenplay)
CAST: Kurt Russell …. Jack Burton
Kim Cattrall …. Gracie Law
Dennis Dun …. Wang Chi
James Hong …. David Lo Pan
Victor Wong …. Egg Shen
Kate Burton …. Margo

Buy Big Trouble in Little China on DVD