The Test of Time: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, and Victor Wong

In case you've never read this column before, I’ve already professed my love for John Carpenter more than I probably should. His decade or so run of making quality-but-on-the-cheap horror movies remains second to none as they defined the genre for an entire generation (if not more). However, Carpenter wasn’t a one-trick pony. He didn’t just stick to horror, shown first by Escape from New York and then Starman.

But his 1986 release was my first true introduction to what Carpenter was capable of beyond standard guts and gore. It's a flick that used to run on repeat HBO back in the day, and I never once got tired of it. It was and still remains one of my all time favorites.

Under the examination: Big Trouble in Little China.

Jack Burton only thinks he's in charge.

THE STORY: After truck driver Jack Burton (Russell) delivers a load to Chinatown, he makes some time for a high stakes card game, in which he wins over his buddy, Wang (Dun). He has to pay up to Burton but only if they both go to pick up Wang's green-eyed lady from the airport. She ends up kidnapped by some shady looking dudes, and suddenly Jack and Wang find themselves involved in an epic, supernatural battle between two century old warring factions. Once the evil Lo Pan (James Hong) takes another green-eyed girl (Burton’s crush Cattrall), it’s up to Jack and his friends to rescue the girls before the shit really gets medieval.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: It’s a little difficult to pin point why Big Trouble in Little China works so well because so much of it works. If I had to start (which I do), it’d be with the man himself: Jack Burton. He’s a great character because he’s a douche who thinks he’s the world’s greatest hero even though he can’t do much except sport a mean tank top and do a great John Wayne impression. Whenever trouble finds him, Burton mostly runs away and allows everyone else to battle for him (well, until the end when he fulfills his own destiny). He also reaffirms his douche status by referring to himself continually in third person, and if somehow someone doesn’t know his name, he’s legitimately offended. "You know what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like this?"

These two deserved a series of films together. 

But all this somehow makes him so damn loveable. Russell brings all of his swagger and charm to make him not overly macho or overly heroic. He's essentially the comic relief because he’s so damn American. He’s a man out of place and over his head. And like any good US Citizen, he’s the right man for the job even if he has no idea what field he’s working in. One of his lines sums him up best: “Everybody relax, I’m here.” Thankfully, the rest of the cast plays perfectly off Russell, especially Dun, Victor Wong, and James Hong who all play their roles semi-serious. As surreal as the situation is, the conflict always feels real. 

Big Trouble in Little China is all over the place in terms of tone, plot, and style, but that’s another element that makes the thing a unique Hollywood product. It’s a sci-fi-action-adventure-horror-kung-fu-comedy-romance-western super hybrid. And it works damn well. Everything from action to tone ends up so over the top that it doesn’t matter. From lightning bolts, to magical powers, to monsters, to the Pork-Chop Express, whatever happens onscreen the audience will roll with it because it never takes itself too seriously. And I give credit again to Burton since he’s a man whose mantra remains no matter the situation: “What the hell.” We, the audience, must say the same. 

The Three Amigos, only more badass. 

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Obviously, I've already professed my love for this movie, which makes tearing it apart a difficult task. So the worst thing I can say about Big Trouble in Little China comes from its 80’s look and feel, which is minor stuff, but for a first time viewer it'll be painfully clear at times. But where the film suffers at times comes from the pacing as the movie drags in spot. Thankfully, however, those moments remain slim. For a Carpenter flick, the music isn’t his best work. It’s mostly forgettable and uninteresting with only a memorable moments. Oh, actually the worst element of the film comes from Burton. What the hell are with Jack Burton’s boots? They're a knee high lace up number that look fit for a dominatrix. Seriously, they’re just terrible.

THE VERDICT: Carpenter once said he believed Big Trouble flopped because the studio didn’t know how to market the thing. I can understand why. The movie blends just about ever single genre in existence without one overtaking another. It’s goofy, dark, serious, mystical, and entertaining, but that’s what I love about it. It’s Carpenter showing he can tackle any genre as long as the studio stays the hell out of his way. 



The world needs another Russell/Carpenter collaboration. Like now. 

Source: Arrow in the Head

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