John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China

Jul 9, 2001 (Updated Nov 26, 2001)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Fun story, great performances, solid direction

Cons:Might be too campy for the serious crowd.

The Bottom Line: This is a cult classic--if you like cult films, rent this one now.

Big Trouble in Little China: 20th Century Fox
Rating: USA: PG-13

When John Carpenter’s film The Thing debuted in 1982, critics were quick to slam it as little more than a mindless gore film. Movie fans stayed away in droves (choosing to instead watch the cuter alien of Spielberg’s ET), and the film died a relatively quick death at the box-office.

Carpenter and star Kurt Russell would reunite for Big Trouble in Little China (BTiLC for brevity’s sake) in 1986—with similar results. However, with the passing of years, both films would be redeemed and earn a much deserved cult classic status. Carpenter, it seems, is occasionally a filmmaker who’s simply ahead of his time.

While The Thing works on numerous levels (as a straight horror/gore film, as a metaphor for the AIDS virus, or even as a macho sci-fi flick), BTilC really has only one approach—a comic book-inspired piece of pulp fiction brought to life on the big screen—but man, does that one approach really work.

Russell is Jack Burton, a wisecracking, tough talking, everyman hero in the mold of John Wayne. Unlike Wayne, though, Burton isn’t immune from bungling things up—a fact that makes BTiLC a lot more fun than your standard Wayne flick. Truthfully, Burton is a character vaguely reminiscent of Bruce Campbell’s Ash from the Evil Dead films—only not quite as dense. Both characters have a knack for getting into extreme situations, both think they’ve got everything figured out, and both invariably screw things up monumentally throughout the narrative. Both Ash and Burton are also prone to making grand pronouncements and wisecracks—and Burton likes to talk about himself in the third person. Yet, for all the problems their machismo often brings about, both manage to save the day at the end of their respective films, and both are incredibly likeable guys to boot.

The plot of BtiLC isn’t really important—it’s merely a device Carpenter employs to get the audience from one elaborate set-piece to the next. When Burton takes his Chinese buddy Wang (Dennis Dun) to the airport to pick up his fiancée Miao Yin, he becomes embroiled in a supernatural caper that will have him being chased through dungeons and tunnels behind the placid facades of San Francisco’s Chinatown, facing three ancient warriors who can control the elements, and fighting a 2,000-year-old Chinese sorcerer named Lo Pan (James Hong) who needs the green-eyed Miao Yin as a sacrificial bride to restore his youth.

Along the way, he’ll meet new allies like good Chinese sorcerer Egg Shen, fight hordes of kung-fu warriors, and find time to fall in love with female attorney Grace (Kim Cattrall). Oh yeah, he’ll also get to spout lots of tough guy talk that’s guaranteed to leave you in stitches.

While the plot is admittedly a bit thin, what makes the film work so well is a combination of Carpenter’s highly-stylized direction and lightning quick pacing. BtiLC rips along at such a clip that you don’t have a spare second to consider the plot until after the credits have rolled. Carpenter takes us from one chase to another, taking his characters out of the frying pan and tossing them into the fire time and time again. This ever-escalating chain of events keeps the action moving and never lets the movie bog down too badly—even in the few expository scenes that are necessary to fully outline Lo Pan’s dastardly scheme.

Carpenter does an excellent job blending ancient Chinese mysticism, kung fu, and good, old fashioned, American gunplay to come up with an interesting mélange of action sequences that never become stale. Making them even more impressive is both Carpenter’s razor sharp editing (while the film features a lot of quick cuts, it’s not quite the same style as the hyper-edited films we see today) and elaborate sets.

The subterranean lairs that much of the film takes place in are great—they’re just hokey enough to highlight the camp appeal of the film (notice particularly the neon-outlined skull in Lo Pan’s chamber), but no so hokey that they look like sets. At least some of the credit here must go to frequent Carpenter cinematographer Dean Cundey, who manages to capture the large scale appeal of the various sets, but in a way that keeps the audience from seeing that they are indeed sets.

Russell turns in another magnificent performance. This was the fourth film he and Carpenter did together, and you can just sense that the men enjoy collaborating. Burton’s one of my favorite action film characters, and he’s sure to win you over with his cheesy bravado during the course of the film. You simply can’t help but like this guy.

The film features lots and lots of special FX, which, for their time, were quite good. By today’s standards, a lot of the stuff looks a little dated, but personally, I think this adds to the film’s charms. This was a movie from a simpler time, and adding a bunch of CGI imagery would only ruin the feel. At any rate, if you like elaborate FX, then you should find a lot to appreciate here.

BtiLC has recently been released on DVD, and boy is it a fantastic set. The film is presented in widescreen, with a sharp picture and excellent sound. It is also enhanced for 16x9 televisions as well. In addition to that, it’s jam-packed with extras, including a featurette, commentary track with Carpenter and Russell, music videos, deleted scenes, trailers, and more. It’s nice to see this much loved cult classic get such excellent treatment on DVD, and if you’re a fan of this film, then this is a must buy disc.

While Big Trouble in Little China may have done poorly at the box office upon its initial release, the film has been vindicated over the course of the last 15 years by earning an audience of cult film fans who love it and understand what Carpenter was trying to do. Like The Thing before it, this was a movie that was simply ahead of its time. If you’re looking for a fun, mindless, and highly entertaining action flick, then give this film a look. You know what old Jack Burton would say in a time like this? Jack Burton would say see this movie.

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