Thu
Sep 1 2011 6:01pm

“If We’re Not Back By Dawn, Call The President”: A Look Back At Big Trouble In Little China

A Look Back At Big Trouble In Little China

This July marked the 25th anniversary of the release of Big Trouble In Little China, which has for every year it’s been on this earth been one of my very favorite movies. It’s endlessly quotable, features two terrific lead performances by Kurt Russell and Dennis Dun (more on this dynamic in a bit), and quite simply the dernier cri in film villainy: James Hong’s Lo Pan. It’s the most purely fun of any of director John Carpenter’s pictures — “purely fun” is not to be confused, in terms of objective quality, with “best,” by any means — has great music, is proof of how gorgeous Kim Cattrall was in the mid-80s, and in every imaginable way is as delightful as anything ever captured on celluloid.

Of course, it was a box-office flop.

It wasn’t my intent, with this loosely-defined rewatch series — of which Buckaroo Banzai was the first — to have them all be about cult classics or flops. It’s a coincidence that the first two pictures have been cult classics that lost money on their theatrical release, but the reasons why both pictures meet both those criteria are not. Aside from the bulk of Big Trouble In Little China’s script having been written by Buckaroo Banzai director W.D. Richter, both pictures are gloriously, defiantly strange, have a certain charming, earnest visual cheesiness, and had the bad luck of being several years ahead of their time.

Big Trouble In Little China predated the increased interest in East Asian cinema in Hollywood by at least half a decade, and a lot of people didn’t quite know what to make of it. But, as Russell also notes with pleasure on that same commentary track, those of us who love this movie do so with great enthusiasm. I don’t know that I’ve ever popped in the tape (and later disc) of Big Trouble In Little China and not had a thoroughly enjoyable hour and forty minutes.

“When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya ‘paid your dues,’ you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: ‘Have ya paid your dues, Jack?’ ‘Yessir, the check is in the mail.’”  - Jack Burton

A pre-credit opening scene between Egg Shen (Victor Wong) and a lawyer (Deep Throat from The X-Files) and a series of monologues into a CB radio wherein Kurt Russell is “talkin’ to whoever’s listenin’” establish truck driver Jack Burton as a larger-than-life character, who talks like John Wayne and whose deeds are the last word in manhood. After his CB rant, he pulls into Chinatown and has a spirited game of Pai Gow with a bunch of other guys, one of whom is his old pal Wang Chi (Dennis Dun). Come dawn, Jack has everybody’s money, and Wang, in an attempt to win it all back, tries to cut a bottle in half with a knife, and fails. Wang tells Jack he can pay him back but first they have to go to the airport to meet his green-eyed fiancee Miao Yin.

A Look Back At Big Trouble In Little China

Jack, interested both in the novelty and the money Wang owes him, accompanies his old friend to the airport, where they meet another green-eyed beauty, white lawyer-activist Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), to whom Jack is immediately drawn. As Jack flounders in his clumsy attempt to flirt, a street gang called the Lords of Death, looking to kidnap a girl to sell, abduct Miao Yin. Jack and Wang follow in hot pursuit.

In Chinatown, they end up in the middle of a war between two fighting tongs, the Wing Kong (for whom the Lords of Death freelance) and the Chang Sing (who, Wang informs Jack, are the good guys). One of the awesomest fights ever ensues, described by director Carpenter as “we have a huge gun fight... and then we get serious,” which means a whole lotta kung fu.

It’s already a great fight before three mysterious men (in very silly hats) arrive on the scene. They are the three Storms: Thunder (Carter Wong), Rain (Peter Kwong), and Lightning (James Pax). the first two represent their elements more metaphorically, but Lightning shoots actual bolts of electricity. The trio begin to utterly lay waste to the Chang Sing, before Wang yells at Jack to drive them the hell out of there. As Jack does so, the Storms step/fly aside, leaving one very tall, flamboyantly dressed tall man beckoning to Jack’s truck, daring him to drive straight through. Jack does, then gets out of his truck to see who this strange being was. Wang says “I think it was Lo Pan.” Jack goes, “Who?” With this, the tall gentleman walks slowly toward Jack and shoots light out of his eyes and mouth, temporarily blinding him. Yep, that’s Lo Pan.

A Look Back At Big Trouble In Little China

Back at Wang’s restaurant, Jack and Wang plot strategy with maitre d’ Eddie (Donald Li, who’s awesome), Uncle Chu (Chao Chi Li, likewise), and eccentric local bus driver/sorcerer Egg Shen (the greatest of all). They plot first to rescue Miao Yin from the brothel to whom the Lords of Death sold her, only to have the Storms blow the place up with green flame and kidnap Miao Yin. It’s at this point when it becomes clear that Lo Pan, needing a bride with green eyes to negate a curse put on him thousands of years ago, has taken Miao Yin to his unearthly subterranean lair. The rest of the movie? Go get her back.

Big Trouble In Little China never lets up for an instant. It’s filmed with John Carpenter’s customary flair, and edited crisply without ever seeming rushed (and seems positively sedate in that regard by modern standards). As much fun as all the action is — and that is massive fun — the movie’s strongest assets are its sense of humor and perspective. It’s a very funny movie, with terrific dialogue its cast delivers with relish, even (and especially) when it gets a little silly. Take, for example, the wit and wisdom of Mr. Jack Burton (and remember, please, to read these in the John Wayne tenor and cadence Russell does):

  • “Feel pretty good. I’m not, uh, I’m not scared at all. I just feel kind of... feel kind of invincible.”
  • (About Lo Pan): “Tall guy, weird clothes, first you see him, then you don’t?”
  • “All I know is, this Lo Pan character comes out of thin air in the middle of a goddamn alley while his buddies are flying around on wires cutting everybody to shreds, and he just stands there waiting for me to drive my truck straight through him? With light coming out of his mouth?”
  • (After having done so) “We really shook the pillars of heaven, didn’t we Wang?”

That last, leading into the clearest illustration of Big Trouble In Little China’s self-awareness, speaks volumes about how they defeat and kill Lo Pan and his underlings. Note: “We.” While the movie starts out positioning Jack as the epic hero and Wang as the sidekick, as the movie goes on, Jack is revealed more and more as a motormouthed meathead, and Wang is the one with all the useful information, in whose milieu the action takes place, and who can kung fu a half dozen bad guys into unconsciousness while Jack runs out of bullets, drops his knife, and misses the whole battle. Let us not forget, either, the hilarious moment when Jack fires his gun into the ceiling and is knocked out by falling chunks of rock, missing the first part of the climactic battle. Or Gracie’s bright red lipstick on his face as he confronts Lo Pan for the final showdown.

A Look Back At Big Trouble In Little China

If Jack Burton had been a total clown, though, the picture would have been little better than it would if we were supposed to take him totally seriously. The thing is, Jack Burton makes mistakes, may indeed be the least smooth dude with the ladies who ever existed, and never shuts up. But he’s a good guy when all is said and done, his heart is in the right place, and he is the guy who kills Lo Pan, a very important entry in his resume. The critique of heroism Russell and Carpenter are engaged in is gentle, and both clearly have affection for Jack Burton, which lets the viewer share in that affection.

But yeah, heroes don’t come much cooler than Wang Chi. He, after all, is the one whose fiancee was kidnapped. He’s the one who needs to be there. And he’s awesome. Dennis Dun does an excellent job with the role, selling all his exposition about pseudo-ancient-Chinese mumbo-jumbo with great earnestness. Though, like with Jack, Wang would have been insufferable if he’d been perfect. The whole reason Jack doesn’t just drive away in his truck and say “see ya in a couple years” after the night of Pai Gow is because Wang gets all cocky and and bets Jack over a thousand bucks he can cut the bottle in half. And, as awesome as he is kung fu-ing all the bad guys and everything, he’s still kind of a dork, but therein lies his legacy: one of cinema’s great action hero nerds. Wang Chi, we salute you.

Every great hero needs a truly great villain. Lo Pan dwells in the upper echelons, with your Vaders and Voldemorts. He’s flamboyant, stylish, and just plain bad. James Hong cuts loose and gives easily the performance of his career, chewing scenery with wanton abandon, menacing both heroes’ respective love interests, not content with a mere one. He teeters on the brink of offensive caricature, and might seem like more of one were it not for strong characters on the good guys’ side like Wang and Eddie, and even Uncle Chu and Egg. Lo Pan ultimately is loathsome for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. Also, seriously. He’s Lo Pan.

Is Big Trouble In Little China a perfect movie? Define perfect. It is what it is, a funny, exciting tale of heroic deeds and epic villainy, perfectly. Does everything in it make sense? No, but that doesn’t matter. I’ve seen thousands of movies, I love movies themselves and everything about cinema more than just about anything, and if you told me I could only see one movie ever again, there is a very good chance it would be Big Trouble In Little China. “No horseshit, Wang?” “No horseshit, Jack.”

A Look Back At Big Trouble In Little China

 


Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to nytheatre.com and Premiere.com.

38 comments
Tyler Durden
1. Balance
Booya! This is also one of my favorite popcorn movies. Excellent review. Almost every line of dialogue could be an internet meme.

Wang: "You ready, Jack?"
Jack: "I was born ready."
Sky Thibedeau
2. SkylarkThibedeau
OMG! We watched this the other night on netflix Wii! We've been having 80's movie nights to show the kids what they missed and we played this one right after "The Goonies" on Friday and "Buckaroo Banzai" the week before.

It is a silly, crazy, wonderful romp from the days when these special effects were state of the art (rather lame now) and Kim Cattrell was a regular in genre movies.

What should we see next? I'm thinking 'Solarbabies' or maybe 'Remo Williams'?
David Thomson
3. ZetaStriker
While Buckaroo Banzai caused me to lose interest and switch of to the Adventures of Gwendolyn in the Land of the Yik Yak(which I hope you cover, by the way *nudge nudge*) for my campy thrills in record time, this is a cult classic I can get behind. While I don't have the film fresh on my mind at the moment, I remember loving Wang's rise to action stardom throughout the film, and the explosive final battles with the three storms. Definitely a good choice for this blogging series you're starting here.
Evan Langlinais
4. Skwid
One of my absolute favorites of all time!

Whatever you do don't watch the commentary, though...put me right to sleep, it did.
Gary Schaper
5. Garyfury
May the wings of Liberty never lose a feather.
Martin Cawley
6. Martin Cawley
Awesome review / thought-piece / essay / thesis on a modern classic
The memories came flooding back!
Steven Halter
7. stevenhalter
Another great film--one of my favorites. I hadn't realized W.D. Richter wrote a large part of this--cool.
Ben Goodman
8. goodben
This is one of those movies that I always caught the last half of on TNT or TBS in the late 80s/early 90s (along with Blues Brothers, Golden Child, Red Sonja, and others). It was one of my favorites. I talked one of my roommates about 10 years later into renting it with me and we were both disappointed in the first part of the movie. The last part is still great though.

Jack Burton was an arrogant buffon, but he had a good heart and was quite entertaining.
Martin Cawley
9. seth e.
Woohoo Big Trouble! I saw this again a while ago, and I'd go even further with the hero-sidekick point you make: Jack Burton spends the whole movie not realizing he's the comic sidekick in someone else's movie. Wang Chi's the real protagonist. I don't think the filmmakers are critiquing the role of hero, so much as poking fun at this guy who thinks he's the center of the story.

It's an interesting way of sneaking a Hong Kong action movie into 80's mainsteam American movies: not by replacing the protagonist with a white guy, but by telling the story from the wingman's perspective.
Martin Cawley
10. RVCBard
I've always wondered what became of Jack after the end of the movie.
Ron Hogan
11. RonHogan
"That is NOT water."
"Black blood of the earth."
"What, you mean oil?"
"I mean black blood of the earth!"

Then there's my all-time favorite, "This pisses me off no end!"

I love this idea about Kurt Russell being the sidekick in a Dennis Dun action movie. It's like a forerunner of Owen Wilson's function in Shanghai Noon, the difference being that by then Jackie Chan was big enough to carry an American picture.
Tyler Durden
12. Balance
*Lo Pan has just described his master plan to a captured Jack and Wang.*

Jack (squinting): "You can go off and rule the universe from beyond the grave."

Lo Pan: "Indeed!"

Jack: "Or check into a psycho ward, whichever comes first, eh?"
Joe Vondracek
13. joev
The main thing about Big Trouble in Little China is: it's all in the reflexes.
R O T
14. rogerothornhill
Thank you for saluting this neglected gonzo classic. I remember seeing it in a deserted theatre in Manhattan on opening day (which was the same weekend as the big Statue of Liberty celebration, I think) and I wished there had been a big audience there. Rumor had it at the time that Richter's cannibalized bits of what was supposed to be the Banzai sequel, fighting the World Crime League. I also remember Russell telling Letterman that his accent for the movie was a cross between an impersonation of John Wayne and an impersonation of the unctuous Eddie Haskell on Leave It to Beaver.
Martin Cawley
15. DarrenJL
@12 Proof that ol' Jack was a Canuck!
Ashe Armstrong
16. AsheSaoirse
Anyone who doesn't like this movie clearly doesn't have a sense of humor or a sense of adventure. Period. This is irrefutable.
Jerald
18. Tzwolf
Whenever I catch this movie on TV I stop everything and watch it. Never fails to make me smile. Your review captures it perfectly.
P J Evans
19. PJEvans
This is one that I (not a fan of action movies) actually enjoyed.
Noneo Yourbusiness
20. Longtimefan
It is a truly fantastic movie.

One of the things I love about the movie is that it does not explain anything. The monsters exist and that is it. They are monsters. Who is going to know that much about them to spend time giving exposition. (besides Egg Shen who does not explain if it is not necessary)

I find the mystery lends a veneer of fictional realism.
Danny Bowes
21. DannyBowes
"Two thousand years, you can't find one broad to fit the bill? Come on, Dave, you must be doing something seriously wrong."
James Whitehead
22. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
Loved this movie from the first time I saw it. A friend brought it over for a movie night and said we'd love it; and he was right.

It is so over the top cheesy it's fabulous.

"Would you stop rubbing your body up against mine, because I can't concentrate when you do that. "

Kato

PS - Also may be the reason I have always had a thing for green eyed women. ;-)
Michael Grosberg
23. Michael_GR
SAy what you will about the 80's, but they knew how to make fun movies, with just the right anount of action, gross-out, humor and emotion. Unlike the modern overproduced shaky-cam CG extravaganzas that still manage to ring hollow despite having everything and the kitchen sink (everything except a smart script, that is) stuffed into them in oversized portions.
Martin Cawley
26. mike-ptda
I'll Second Michael_GR's comments.

Time to grab "Big Trouble in little China" off the DVD shelf and enjoy a an excellent 80's B movie this weekend.

Thanks for the the review Tor.

~Mike
Steven Halter
27. stevenhalter
Jack Burton: Hey, what more can a guy ask for?
Egg Shen: Oh, a six-demon bag!
Jack Burton: Terrific, a six-demon bag. Sen-sational. What's in it, Egg?
Egg Shen: Wind, fire, all that kind of thing!
Phil Frederick
28. flosofl
Jack Burton: What does that say?
Wang Chi: Hell of Boiling Oil.
Jack Burton: You’re kidding.
Wang Chi: Yeah, I am. It says Keep Out.
Kimani Rogers
30. KiManiak
I love this movie! It was on the other day; I had to stop everything and watch.

Thanks for covering it; I agree with almost all of your review.

Oh, and I couldn't even read through the review and most of the comments without laughing at the quoted dialogue!

Thanks folks!
Martin Cawley
31. Eugene R.
Jack: "You know what ol' Jack Burton says at a time like this?"
Thunder: "Who??"
Jack: "Jack Burton! *Me*!"

Not only a box office flop, but a critical leper, too. I have never seen a rating for Big Trouble that was more than the lowest on the critic's scale. What film are they watching? I suppose that it did help to have spent too many hours of my youth watching the local "Black Belt Theater" offerings so that I knew what a great job of fight choreography is executed in the Wing Kong/Chang Sing/Storms battle.

Of course, now after all the Hong Kong influences have worked their way into Hollywood, you would think that Big Trouble would get some retrospective attention and plaudits. Oh well, let's just keep it our little secret, shall we?
Robert Evans
32. bobsandiego
A fine example fo film making from Joh n Carpenter before all talent fled his body. (Best I can tell that event occured about half way through They Live.) This was a rock'em sock'em fun movie, and one that plays perfectly to the RPG mindset. I and many of my gamers friends were not deepely aware of Hong Kong cinema, but this film rang for us. 25 years later and this film still haunt the corridors of my mind. (we have a woman named Grace where I work and I have to use an effort of will not call her Gracie Law.)
Danny Bowes
33. DannyBowes
It warms my heart to see so many of you love this movie as much as I do. Per Eugene R.'s point about critics hating this, that may be true (and part of why I have semi-serious ambitions to redefine film discourse by de-snootifying things a bit), but without exception, every filmmaker I know swears by both John Carpenter and Big Trouble In Little China. So there's that at least.
Ashe Armstrong
35. AsheSaoirse
@ 32. bobsandiego: I wholeheartedly disagree with the fleeing of talent. In the Mouth of Madness is one of my all time favorite movies.

@33. DannyBowes: Seriously! How can people NOT love this movie? It's baffling and shocking and I am appalled, APPALLED I SAY! Everyone needs a six demon bag.
john mullen
36. johntheirishmongol
I love this movie for its fun and cheese. Kurt Russel never minds making fun of himself and everyone had too much fun making this movie. There were a lot of those type of movies and I wish there were more. They were full of a sense of silliness, without being stupid. Over the top, yes, but that was sort of the point.
Martin Cawley
37. jcello
"God, aren't you even gonna kiss her goodbye?"

"Nope."
john massey
38. subwoofer
Dunno how I missed a review of my favorite movie... musta been trapped under something heavy. Love it? Heck, I quote it in my profile.

"I thought you were going to follow me?"

"Yeah, but then I came to my senses..."

To Kim Cattrell( bow wow!) "I know, there's something wrong with your face."

Never understood how this movie did not "click" with audiences and yet everyone I know has seen it... or if I know they haven't, I buy it for them. And so many years later, it still holds up as good as ever.

Great review :D

Woof™.
Martin Cawley
39. wheels
Yeah, I missed this review when it came out, too. The mention of Voldemort along with Lo Pan reminds me of a marvelously well-done fanfiction that crosses the two: Big Trouble in Old England, which opens with Jack driving through Little Whinging during a Death Eater attack:

"We can't go to the police about this."

"Oh, another one of those sorts of things. Don't worry, I've had lots of experience fighting magical immortal SOBs."
Martin Cawley
40. msn
JB "You know what Jack Burton says at a time like this?"
Thunder "WHO???"
Thunders delivery of this one line. This one word. Goes down as one of the greatest deliveries of all time.

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