Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Chinese American Wang Chi’s bride-to-be is kidnapped by a street gang. When Wang Chi follows them to San Francisco Chinatown, a handful of warriors with superhuman abilities prevent him from pursuing his fiancée. They are the enforcers of Lo Pan, a businessman and secretly undead sorcerer, and Wang Chi’s bride happens to fit the description of a girl Lo Pan needs to ritually sacrifice in order to become human again. Undeterred, Wang Chi plans to break into the headquarters of Lo Pan, and he is assisted by a different street gang, the magician Egg Shen, and fittingly named lawyer Gracie Law, who happens to be an expert in all things Chinatown.

If you are wondering how Kurt Russell, so prominent on the poster, features into this movie, well… His Jack Burton is the viewpoint character and in almost every scene, but the story isn’t about him, and he isn’t the hero. In a reversal of how these stories typically go, the only white male is not the protagonist who rallies the troops to save the day. He thinks he is and he talks a big game, but he turns out to be pretty incompetent at both martial arts and gunfighting. He has very little real agency, following other people’s leads, and he’s frequently upstaged not just in the action department (which he watches from the sidelines), but also as comic relief.

It’s a neat idea, but not perfectly executed, because Jack does end up playing a pivotal role in the film’s climax, and he fluctuates widely between bumbling and capable. It’s not difficult at all to imagine the studio at odds with director John Carpenter’s intentions and insisting on the occasional “badass” moment for Jack. The result is an odd mishmash where the intended disparity between Jack’s machismo and his actual capabilities is not sufficiently consistent.

Similarly, the film is an odd duck tonally. It never becomes particularly serious, but I’d hesitate to call it an outright comedy. To me, it came across as a light-hearted action film which intended to draw its humour partly from highly over-the-top physical feats and partly from silly slapstick. And that might have been okay if the characters behaved even remotely in a believable or relatable manner and/or the plotting possessed a semblance of sense and coherence. Neither of those things are evident. Without exception, the characters, both good and evil, remain caricatures. And they are the prisoners of a plot that makes little sense and is even less well conveyed, with contrivance after contrivance, exposition way into the last third of the movie, and several instances of convenient out-of-nowhere magic or villain stupidity helping the heroes come out on top.

I suspect that the film tried to be a parody of action films in general and a specific kind of action films in particular: Hong Kong martial arts flicks and their American knock-offs. Unfortunately, my familiarity with those kinds of films is extremely limited, so if there were specific shoutouts to the genre, they went over my head.

Big Trouble in Little China is a bit of a mess, and it may well be an intentional mess, with its exaggerated campiness and the openly-winked at plot resolutions. I can see why it’s a cult classic in some circles: the movie has a certain energy that pulls you in, it has one of those vividly portrayed “secretly all around us” exotic settings, and it has some moments of inspired fun. But on the whole, it didn’t really work for me.


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