I was raised in a world without YouTube for many of my years, I lived in a time where you relied upon your VHS recording your film or tv show. These were also years in which access to a wealth of obscure films was not a click away. I’m fortunate to have a father who enjoyed watching quirky or cult films from way back when so whenever they were on television, he would stick a VHS cassette in the rickety player we had to watch the next day. This is how I came to see such classics as the remake of The Blob, Tremors, Mr Vampire, Meals on Wheels, Murder by Death and so on. Whilst a lot of these films still resonate fondly with me, there is one in particular that stands out ahead of the rest.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I first came into contact with John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China” as it feels like it’s always been a film in my life in some way. If I was to guess, I believe my dad played a VHS copy (recorded off of the TV with the ads included) to shut me up on a Saturday afternoon when I was about 4 or 5 years old. The film dazzled me from a young age and was the ultimate fantasy film for a kid obsessed with 70s Kung Fu films (thanks again, Dad) and Power Rangers. It was so action packed and fun from beginning to end that I fell in love with it.
A few years later, I got my own VHS player in my room (weirdly enough, this was in the 2000s when VHS was on it’s deathbed but I digress) and therefore proceeded to record a ton of my old favourites from the five channels. Soon I had a mountain of cult films at my disposal and the most treasured out of them all was Big Trouble in Little China (overwriting a previously recorded version of Mortal Kombat II, the label still stated that film). I watched it regularly and would have go-to bits if I couldn’t be bothered to watch in full. I was still obsessed as I was as a younger version of myself. Time passed and I eventually got the DVD which I watch at least once a year. For those who have never seen, heard or even got Big Trouble in Little China, let me bring you up to speed.
Big Trouble tells the story of Jack Burton, a free-wheeling trucker who seemingly talks to nobody over the truck radiowaves. Owed money by old friend Wang after winning several bets at the San Francisco docks, he accompanies Wang to the airport as his fiancé, Miao Yin. Out of nowhere, she is kidnapped by a mysterious gang and taken to Chinatown with the intent of being sold off as a sex slave. Whilst Jack and Wang are in pursuit of the gang to rescue Miao Yin, they encounter a mysterious and other-worldly figure known as Lo Pan who, along with his powerful henchmen known as the Three Storms, kidnap Miao to complete a sacred ritual. Jack and Wang race against time time to save Miao Yin and to avoid her death by stopping Lo Pan.
One of the key things with Big Trouble in Little China that has made the film so enduring to me is it’s lack of conforming to narrative norms. The best example of this is the fact that the main hero of the film Jack (played perfectly by Kurt Russell) is a inept fool who seems to be incapable of doing anything heroic. In the middle of a gun fight, Jack seems confused as to why no bullets have left his gun (the safety’s on) and seems even more startled when he finally kills someone. Whilst he may have the big talk and the quips, he’s as useful as a chocolate teapot when it comes to action. What made this funny was that the film was released at a time when cinemas were chock full of Arnie/Sly shoot’em ups with death counts hitting the near thousands. Jack Burton would struggle to hold a gun facing the right direction.
The casting of the film was pretty perfect with Kurt Russell as the aforementioned hapless hero Jack, Kim Cattrall at her most 80s as his love interest, Gracie Law. Veteran character actor James Hong plays the evil David Lo Pan in a rare main role and Victor Wong (aka that actor you cast when you need an eccentric Chinese character) as the eccentric Chinatown tour guide Egg Shen. Unfortunately, Dennis Dun who played Wang seemingly fell off the face of the Earth following the film which, given his fun performance as the film’s ‘real’ hero, is a pity.
The mixture of shoot outs and Martial Arts action is a delight to the eyes and makes the fun just a fun experience to watch. The fight choreography is amazing as Carpenter and co throw everything at you at once; men flying around, sword fights, flying sword fights, battles between magic and black magic, knife fights. The mass fight scenes are on par with many of the 70s Kung Fu films it takes inspiration from, especially the epic alley way fight.
I’ve briefly mentioned them previously, but the Three Seasons (Thunder, Lightening and Rain) prove to be terrifying and iconic foes in the film. They serve as Lo Pan’s most trusted guards and each of them possess extraordinary abilities; strength (Thunder), control of storms (Rain) and control of lightening (Erm, Lightening). They were always the coolest part of the film, especially Lightening who strikes a resemblance to an iconic video game character, at least to me anyways. Thunder is also (in)famous for a scene where he expands, a lot, to a brilliantly gory degree.
But maybe the most endearing thing about the film is that it’s clearly of it’s time. It looks and sounds like a film made in the 1980s; Lo Pan’s wedding in his underground lair has more neon than a Michael Mann film and the special effects are pretty cheesy even by 1986 standards. I also said sounds because John Carpenter scored the film with a Moog heavy soundtrack that has a slight East Asian feel to it. He also needed a catchy song for the end credits which he once again made himself. The song “Big Trouble in Little China” by fake band The Coupe de Villes is both amazing and awful at the same time with Carpenter doing his best Jim Morrison impersonation to some fairly incredible music. I always knew of the song from the credits but it wasn’t until I got the DVD that I truly came to enjoy it. It is so cheesy that a commenter on YouTube correctly described it as “Eighties as fuck“. Truer words never spoken.
The film was not one of director John Carpenter’s biggest hits and didn’t make a massive dent on the box office making just over 50% of it’s 20 million dollar budget. Who would’ve thought a wild west/martial arts hybrid wouldn’t have been everyone’s cup of tea? It was also massacred by critics at the time, resulting in Carpenter moving further and further away from the mainstream Hollywood system and almost disappearing until the late 90s. The film, however, has developed a fairly die hard cult fanbase over time and is seen by many to be a VHS classic.
I guess my level of fandom made the recent news that Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock was interested in remaking Big Trouble in Little China. My initial reaction was that of disgust and confusion as to why anyone would go out of their way to remake a cult film. As much as I love the film, it was a money loser at the box office; I don’t see how this would really change with the remake. My other, more rational thought was simply this; why not try? If the film is faithful to the original then it’ll result in more people watching Carpenter’s version. If the film bombs, it can be derided and forgotten like Total Recall (2012) or Robocop (2014) and curious audience members can instead uncover the joys of the original. Either way, a sure fire win for all as the original with be view by more curious film fans.
So in closing, I implore all of you to seek out this classic and experience it for yourselves. Both hilarious and visually stunning, I guarantee you will not have a more entertaining 90 minutes watching a film and you have my word on that. I guess there’s no finer way of leaving you than with some sage advice from the greatest action hero of all time, Jack Burton.
You just listen to the old Pork Chop Express here now and take his advice on a dark and stormy night when the lightning’s crashin’ and the thunder’s rollin’ and the rain’s coming down in sheets thick as lead. Just remember what old Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big old storm right square in the eye and he says, ‘Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.’