Home Video Hovel: Big Trouble in Little China, by Tyler Smith
After a string of box office failures in the 1980s, director John Carpenter was apparently eager to cut loose. Having delivered some of the best science fiction and horror films of all time to an indifferent filmgoing public, Carpenter decided to chuck it all and make a movie so strange, so outlandish, so unabashedly silly that it has become a cult classic. Even on his most offbeat day, it’s hard to believe that Carpenter – whose films were often achingly serious – could craft a film like Big Trouble in Little China. And yet there it is, an odd little fantasy comedy, emerging fully formed and eager to please – and baffle – any viewer brave enough to try it out.
The story involves a puffed up trucker named Jack Burton (Kurt Russell, channeling the spirit of Rich Little channeling the spirit of John Wayne) as he gets tangled up in the supernatural dealings of an ancient Chinese cult, led by the nefarious Lo Pan (the always-delightful James Hong). Leading the charge against the cult are intrepid reporter Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), lovestruck martial artist Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), and wise mystic Egg Shen (Victor Wong). During this adventure, they come up against ninja rebels, magical assassins, and strange creatures. Throughout it all, Burton is schooled in the ways of the Orient and its many supernatural mysteries.
Given how exotic and over-the-top the film’s depictions of Chinese culture can be, I’m surprised that the film has withstood the test of time as well as it has. Many could look at the sheer ridiculousness of it all and cringe. And yet the spirit of the film – which takes the story surprisingly seriously – keeps the story from being a condescending Western look at the goofiness of another culture. Instead, the butt of the joke is often Burton, whose brash confidence carries with it a heavy dose of American ignorance. But, lest we think that Carpenter is making some kind of anti-American screed, we are reminded that Burton is our hero and primary entry point into this crazy story. And his growth and eventual acceptance of this strange culture reflects our own.
The tone of the film can be adequately summed up at “zany”, with the story often screeching to a halt then abruptly changing direction and running full steam ahead. It actually begins to evoke a Chuck Jones cartoon, first tonally, then visually. The supernatural powers displayed by our heroes and villains are pulled right out of a comic book. And the monsters often cross over from disgusting to oddly adorable and then back again. It all adds up to a weird fever dream, where realism is an overrated and easily discarded concept.
There is certainly a sense of exhilaration to the proceedings, as it often feels like Carpenter is giving no thought to accessibility. He doesn’t care if his story makes sense, or if it offends. After multiple failed attempts to connect with the mainstream audience – attempts which would eventually solidify their place in American culture – Carpenter throws himself into this film with truly reckless abandon. It is a odd, sometimes-nightmarish delight, and one that rewards multiple viewings by those brave or foolish enough to return to this cinematic middle finger to the Hollywood mainstream.