Guest Review: John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China”

My first introduction to John Carpenter was with Escape from New York. I instantly became a Carpenter fan. Over the ensuing years, I made a point to go see each new movie that Carpenter put out. It is curious then that this one escaped my notice when it was in the theater. I didn’t actually get to see it until it was out on video. Perhaps that is part of the reason why it ranks as my favorite Carpenter movie. (Not the ONLY reason, to be sure. The plot and the presence of Kurt Russell has a lot to do with it too).

The script started out in life as a Western, if you can believe it. it was given an extensive re-write by W. D. Richter, a great scriptwriter in his own right who, among other scripts, worked on the scripts for the 1970’s remakes of both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dracula. He also directed (but not wrote) one of my other favorite movies, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.

The movie was made at the same time as the Eddie Murphy flick The Golden Child. In fact, there was a concerted effort to get this movie in the theater before the Eddie Murphy movie because it was thought that it would flounder in competition with a movie that had the superstar. As it turned out, it didn’t matter anyway. The movie bombed at the box office. But it has something going for it in it’s after life. It is more fondly admired than the turkey Eddie Murphy put out. It has a HUGE cult fan base (of which I am one).

Carpenter’s output has been largely in the horror genre. His output includes the original introduction to slasher extraordinaire Michael Myers, Halloween, The Fog, the remake of The Thing, the film adaptation of Stephen King‘s Christine, as well as the previously reviewed They Live. He has also delved in the sci-fi world, as evidenced by Starman and two features with the anti-hero Snake Plissken, Escape from New York and Escape from L.A.

Early Carpenter work includes a TV movie about Elvis (featuring today’s movie’s star, Kurt Russell), and an excellent nail-biting remake of sorts of the classic John Wayne flick, Rio Bravo, set in modern day, Assault on Precinct 13. Not all of Carpenter’s works have been gems, however. (Take my advice and avoid Memoirs of an Invisible Man at all costs). But Carpenter has made more hits that are genuinely revered by people, like me, who like his kind of movies, and you can guarantee this won’t be the last time I review one of his movies. Just waiting for the right moment.

Big Trouble in Little China

Jack Burton (Russell) is an independent truck driver owner/operator of The Pork Chop Express. At the beginning of the movie he is driving a load of cargo into San Francisco, specifically Chinatown. After dropping his load, he spends an evening indulging in some of the delights of Chinatown, including food and gambling with dock workers. At the end of the evening (actually early morning, by this time) he makes a bet with his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) which he wins.

But Wang hasn’t got the money, so Burton accompanies him to get it. But before this can happen Wang has to go to the airport to pick up his fiancee, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), freshly coming in from China. While there, members of a Chinese street gang, The Lords of Death, try to kidnap another Chinese girl, Tara (Min Luong), a friend of Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall).

Burton foils the kidnapping, but in the process, Miao Yin is kidnapped instead. Burton and Wang give chase and end up back on the streets of Chinatown. There they encounter a funeral procession for a member of the Wing Kong (the good tong). Members of Chang Sing (the bad tong) interrupt the funeral procession and a mini-war breaks out. But this battle is interrupted by the three “Storms”, three brothers with phenomenal powers; Thunder (Carter Wong), Lightning (Peter Kwong) and Rain (James Pax).

These three make short work of the two gangs, but the two heroes don’t stick around. They drive off, but run over, seemingly, a wizard, David Lo Pan. Lo Pan is the villain of the piece, so you just know he is not killed. Jack and Wang go to Wang’s father’s restaurant where the plot becomes even more complicated. First it turns out that everybody but Jack knows Gracie. Then we find out that the reason that Miao was kidnapped is she has green eyes (apparently a rarity among Chinese people). She is being held in a brothel in Chinatown.

The heroes enlist the help of Egg Chen (Victor Wong) to rescue Miao, but the plan falls through because the three storms show up and kidnap her from the brothel. Now we find out that Lo Pan is older than Methuselah. He is cursed by an ancient emperor and the only way he can remove the curse is to marry a Chinese girl with green eyes. But the only problem with that is that he must sacrifice her after he marries her. Which makes it a little easier, so he thinks, when he captures Gracie, who also has green eyes. He plans to marry them both, sacrificing Gracie to the Emperor and living out his life in joy with Miao.

The film is replete with Chinese black magic. To counteract it, Egg Chen comes along with his own brand of white magic. You can see it for yourself even in the beginning of the movie. A beginning that was demanded by Barry Diller and the executives at 20th Century Fox because they didn’t understand the movie and were afraid that Jack Burton’s character did not come off heroic enough. It was a last minute addition after all the rest of the movie had been wrapped up.The original movie was intended to start with Burton driving into Chinatown (the part where the opening credits roll).

The white magic that Egg uses includes potions to help the heroes be brave in the face of the monsters and traps that lo Pan has set up, and also to do battle with his guards. Not that Burton really needs it. He’s a gung ho, devil-may-care type with an over inflated sense of his own bravado, but it gives us some great moments in the movie. And the movie is funny as all get out, if you can appreciate the humor. One of my favorite lines in the movie is when Jack and Wang come up along a door with Chinese writing on it.

Jack: “What does that say?
Wang: “Hell of Burning Oil”.
Jack: “You’re kidding?”
Wang: “Yeah. I am. It just says keep out.”

All of this leads up to the final confrontation between our good guys and Lo Pan and the Three Storms. And of course the saving of the damsels in distress. Big Trouble in Little China is a great place to start with Carpenter, especially if you are a little squeamish about blood and gore and don’t want to experience Halloween or The Thing.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films. This article ran last year and is being reprinted in honor of John Carpenter’s 72nd birthday today!