Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Over the weekend, I scoured Netflix looking for something fun to watch. My original intentions were to watch something I wouldn’t have to review for this site, but the film I stumbled across was so enjoyable that I couldn’t help but write about it. The film I landed on was Big Trouble in Little China, directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell. It’s a film that is so over the top and utterly ridiculous that it can be hard to take it seriously as a film. There are so many elements of the film that are bad that it ultimately makes the film a fun and enjoyable experience.
The film opens with one of the characters, Egg Shen (Victor Wong) explaining to his lawyer that magic is real. This is important because it prepares the audience for everything they are about to witness and alls for some suspended belief. I found out that this scene was added prior to the films initial release because the studio wanted to make sure audiences understood what they were getting in to. In reality, the scene added nothing to the rest of the film because the main story slowly eases the audience and the main character into this magical, Chinese world. After that opening scene the film introduces Kurt Russell’s character, Jack Burton, a truck driver who spends his time gambling with some of the Chinese shop owners. When one of them, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) loses a bet and owes Jack thousands of dollars, Jack follows Wang to pick up the money and Wang’s fiancé. Wang’s fiancé is kidnapped, and Jack and Wang go to China Town looking for the gang who took her. What they don’t know is that Wang’s fiancé has been kidnapped by David Lo Pan (James Hong) a powerful sorcerer, and that in order to save Wang’s fiancé, they will have to overcome great odds. If the plot summary doesn’t sound ridiculous already, wait until you’ve seen the rest of the film.
A lot of the action sequences are reminiscent of a martial arts style film. When Jack and Wang enter into China Town, they get caught in the middle of a fight between two rival gangs. There’s a little bit of gun play involved, but a majority of the fighting is hand-to-hand and foot-to-foot combat with the necessary flips and spins to make it more elaborate than it probably needs to be. The film manages to balance these martial arts scene with some shootouts as Jack embodies a typical 80’s action star with his tank top, muscles, and guns. To top it all off there are three characters who represent different elements of a storm, and act as body guards to David Lo Pan. These three have extra abilities that make fights with them more entertaining, especially with their over-exaggerated facial movements.
In the hands of a different director, Big Trouble in Little China might be making its rounds as a bad film, but its not thanks to John Carpenter. The film has all of the elements to make a cheesy martial arts film. Jack Burton is a stereotypical action hero. He talks like John Wayne. He wears a tank top to show off his muscles and carries around a gun. He’s an action first, no planning kind of guy. Many of the other Chinese characters also feature stereotypes that might be frowned upon today, but work for the style story Carpenter is creating. Even Kim Cattrall’s character, Gracie Law, who starts the film as a somewhat, strong, independent, fast-talking, female lead, later becomes a damsel in distress type that Jack Burton has to save. There are other times the film plays with these archetypes and almost satirizes the genre Carpenter is trying to work with. For example, even though Jack is the strong hero type, he’s really the side-kick to the enter story. Wang is the one who leads Jack into China Town and explains much of what is going on. While Jack is the one who acts, he know less about what is going on than anyone else in the film, and without Wang or Gracie or any of the other characters, Jack would probably not survive the ordeal.
A lot of the dialogue and writing can be considered over the top as well. There’s enough exposition to make your head spin as different characters try to explain everything that is going on. This is where Jack becomes a surrogate for the audience. Since he is an outsider to China Town, he needs everything explained to him, just like the audience does, in order to comprehend what is happening. Typically an overabundance of exposition is a bad thing in a film, and I’m not saying it’s a good thing in Big Trouble in Little China, but for this film it works because of the genre and style Carpenter is going for. Everything that happens is supposed to ride that fine line between bad and satirical. Along with too much exposition, the different characters make it overly clear what their goals are. It seems that every scene has one or two or all of the characters explaining why they are present and why they need to be there. Jack wants his truck back. Wang wants his fiancée. Egg Shen wants to defeat David Lo Pan. It’s almost tiring to hear until you realize what purpose it serves to the style of the film.
Big Trouble in Little China is not a perfect film. The fine line between bad and satirical can sometimes be a little too blurry, and there a plot threat with a monster looking thing that does nothing to push the rest of the plot forward. But, if you want a fun, 80’s action film with a lot of cheese, this film will be perfect for you. The more I watch Kurt Russell, the more I enjoy the range or performances he can give. This film is worth it for the scene in which Jack needs to go undercover as a business man looking for a prostitute. Don’t expect anything ground breaking about the satire this film brings to the table since there are plenty of films that have done it better. Just tune in, and turn off your brain, and enjoy.