Review: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Man loves truck. Man loses truck. Man faces up to an ancient evil sorcerer of Chinese dark magic to reunite with truck and manages to make a few friends and have a couple of laughs along the way.

The throb of grungy bass mixed with full-on synthesiser and drum machine with just a hint of chopsticks chords. The seminal 80s action hero complete with five o’clock shadow and mullet just trying to get his truck back. Oh and Kim Cattrall getting in the way.

Still scratching your chin? You were either born this side of the millennium or seriously need to reacquaint yourself with some of 80s cinema’s more quirky offerings courtesy of John Carpenter – the above, of course, referring to Big Trouble in Little China.

Carpenter doesn’t hang around. Through the testimony of a wizened Egg Shen (Victor Wong) we learn in the opening minutes Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is our hero and that something freaky has most definitely gone down in Chinatown. Cue to before the aftermath where we meet unlikely amigos Jack and Wang (Dennis Dun) on their way to the airport to collect Wang’s fiancée, Miao Yin.

When Miao is kidnapped by Chinese thugs, the pair head to San Francisco’s famous Chinatown district to begin the search only to lose Jack’s beloved truck in the process amidst a clash between two rival kung-fu gangs. As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, the arrival on the scene of some questionable characters charged up with super-human abilities makes their difficult task seem nigh on impossible.

It’s pretty clear early on that Big Trouble has no intention of presenting a realistic side to the hustle and bustle of Chinatown. True, that it has all the depth and meaning of a cheap fortune cookie but, like The Goonies before it, Big Trouble was always meant as a rollicksome romp as opposed to anything of meatier substance.

Probably one for the more devoted Carpenter fan, but a second watch of Big Trouble following on from the special features interviews reveals to some extent the ongoing fight between director and studio for what they both believed the finished product should be. For those with lives too busy to dissect the subtle nuances of 80s action comedies, fear not – Big Trouble is very much a film with its heart on its sleeve that can and should be enjoyed for what it is – a bit of a lark.

Admittedly, Carpenter had always wanted to take Big Trouble in a “goofy direction” – the fight scenes more reminiscent of a spaghetti western bar brawl rather than finely choreographed martial arts. Nevertheless, there are plenty of nuggets of offbeat brilliance to be found whether it be the almost cuddly ancient evil David Lo Pan (James Hong) claiming he will flay the skin from anyone that opposes him in a tone not unlike a kindly grandpa offering a Werther’s Original or the suggestion that it’s not the bumbling all-American trucker that’s the story’s hero but the plucky Wang trying to save his missus from becoming Lo Pan’s bride.

The special features also include the original music video that accompanied the release of the film and yes, that is John Carpenter himself with full moustache and sideburns giving his gravelly baritone a workout.

Nobody can claim this is Carpenter at his best. That said, it would be unfair to dismiss it as a mere fluffy version of his other work. Punchier options are certainly available by way of They Live (1988) and The Thing (1982) but if a whimsical popcorn farce is what you’re after then best stick with Big Trouble in Little China.

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