Movies Revisited: ‘Big Trouble In Little China’ Turns 30: Celebrating John Carpenter’s oddball martial arts opus on its 30th anniversary.
When some wild-eyed eight foot tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the bar-room wall, and he looks ya crooked in the eye and he asks you if you’ve paid your dues…Well you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye and you remember what old Jack Burton always says at a time like that. Have you paid your dues, Jack? Yes, Sir, the check is in the mail.
That bizarre, comical monologue uttered by Kurt Russell kicked off one of the craziest genre-defying films of the 80’s. That would be John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China, a movie that was a huge flop upon its release in 1986, but has garnered cult classic status in ensuing decades.
This follows a familiar pattern for much of Carpenter’s filmography: The Thing, They Live and The Fog have all fared better in retrospect then upon their début. His films defied formulaic conventions and tidy endings, which frustrated unadventurous studios and audiences. And Big Trouble was no different.
Russell starred as trucker Jack Burton, an arrogant buffoon who gets mixed up in San Francisco’s Chinatown while helping his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) rescue his fiancée after she’s kidnapped by Lo Pan (James Hong) an evil sorcerer who wants to use her essence to break from an evil curse.
It’s easily the director’s most diverse and ambitious effort, a melting pot of Asian mysticism, horror visuals, broad humor and bare knuckle action, with some truly inspired visual set pieces and Carpenter’s most multifaceted musical score.
But 20th Century Fox studio head Barry Diller was not on board. He hated Carpenter’s notion that Burton was not the hero of the picture, playing second fiddle anti-hero to Dun’s heroic protagonist. As noted in Carpenter and Russell’s engaging DVD commentary, Burton suffered delusions of grandeur, with Carpenter noting he thinks he’s a whole lot more capable than he is.
The idea of flipping convention with a white leading male playing sidekick to an Asian actor was a bold move, especially in the homogeneous 80’s, and Diller balked, making Carpenter film a prologue where Burton is lionized.
But the filmmaker still got the final say, with a finale showing Burton is still out of his depth, making another self-aggrandizing monologue, completely unaware a monster is stowing away on his Pork-chop Express big rig.
But there’s another less discussed plot-point that’s equally unusual: Burton has the hots for the film’s heroine Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), but she finds him disagreeable, repeatedly rebuffing his advances.
This has long been a staple of romantic subplots, with the female lead initially repulsed by the protagonist until he wins her over. But when she does eventually fall for Burton, he walks away, not even kissing her goodbye, saying: Sooner or later I rub everybody the wrong way.
The film had to be rushed in production because of Eddie Murphy’s similarly themed comedy vehicle The Golden Child was in the works, which oddly enough Carpenter was originally asked to direct. As the filmmaker stated: How many adventure pictures dealing with Chinese mysticism have been released by the major studios in the past 20 years? For two of them to come along at the exact same time is more than mere coincidence.
He made the right call: no one is celebrating that clunker decades later.
As director and star also noted in the commentary, Big Trouble seemed destined for great success given its test screening was well received.
But 20th Century Fox launched a weird small budgeted campaign, with ads showing Russell with the tagline Who is Jack Burton? Carpenter and Russell were both dismissive of an ineffective slogan which gave no inkling of the plot, noting: who gives a shit? It was a vote of no confidence, with Fox allotting most of their marketing budget for James Cameron’s Aliens.
Alas, the film was a box-office dud, which sapped much of Carpenter’s confidence; he gave up working with big studios, saying afterwards that The experience [of Big Trouble] was the reason I stopped making movies for the Hollywood studios. I won’t work for them again. I think Big Trouble is a wonderful film, and I’m very proud of it. But the reception it received, and the reasons for that reception, were too much for me to deal with. I’m too old for that sort of bullshit.
While Big Trouble was critically and commercially panned upon its release, it has one of the most devoted cult followings of its kind. Its influence reaches far and wide, from the Mortal Kombat video game series to genre fusion flicks like The Matrix and Kill Bill.
Perhaps in another parallel world, Big Trouble In Little China opened to amazing box-office and spawned countless sequels. But that, in a way, would work to its detriment.
There can never be another film like Carpenter’s wonky masterpiece, which is why the rumored remake starring Duane “The Rock” Johnson should be stopped at all costs. Studios are more conservative and bottom-line motivated than ever before. Big Trouble is too wonderfully weird to be made today. Let it be. It shook the pillars of heaven dammit!