Stuff I Watch in October: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Happy October and welcome! All 31 days this month, I will be reviewing all the films I watch in the month of October. They’re mostly a selection of horror or suspense films in my own library or films and shows that have been recommended to me.

Please enjoy and leave a comment!

And if you missed any of our past reflections, take a look:

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Psycho (1960)
The Haunting (1963)
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)
The Other (1972)
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Young Frankenstein (1974)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Halloween (1978)
Alien (1979)
The Shining (1980)
Halloween II (1981)
The Evil Dead (1981)
Halloween III – Season of the Witch (1982)
Ghostbusters (1984)
Teen Wolf (1985)
Aliens (1986)

Our next film is…

WATCHING: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

big trouble in little china

DIRECTED BY: John Carpenter, director of Halloween. I know I hyped up Halloween…but this may be his true masterpiece. In my opinion, he never topped this film.

WHAT IS IT?: This is one of the most insane films you will ever see. It’s a horror film. It’s a freakin’ Western. It’s an Eastern martial arts flick…and I finally have the chance to write my feelings about what is probably one of the most influential films of…well…not only my childhood, but my entire life. I don’t even know where to begin…so let’s start with the description and go from there.

THE PLOT: “Big Trouble in Little China” sees Kurt Russell as truck driver Jack Burton who takes some time off to hang out with his buddy, Wang Chi, on the outskirts of San Francisco. After eating, drinking, and playing Dominoes all night with Wang and his friends, Wang reveals that he has a girl to pick up at the San Francisco International Airport, one he plans to marry.

Unfortunately, a gang of thugs kidnap her, much to Jack and Wang’s shock. Attempting to pursue the gang, they lose track of them inside of San Francisco’s Chinatown — where they inadvertently find themselves in the middle of a centuries-old blood feud between two warring Chinese factions, the Chang-Sings and the Wing Kong…

And, in a normal martial arts film, this might be where a writer begins to work on a second act…but this isn’t a normal film.

When three gods (dubbed “The Three Storms”) come down, in the middle of the fight between the two sides, from the skies above to throw lightning and kick some ass, Jack’s shocked reaction and silent pleading for an answer from Wang mirrors our sentiments. Sure, the movie’s cold open features bus driver Egg Shen showing us he has the ability to harness and control lightning (something he dubs “Chinese Black Magic”), but, at that point, you’re not thinking much of it.

Did I also mention that Lo Pan’s entire kingdom (furnished with statues and neon and a whole throne room) resides underneath the city of San Francisco, California and that one of the entrances to this kingdom is through a Chinese shipping company which acts as a front? I should mention that and then stop there.

big trouble in little china

WHAT DID CRITICS THINK?: I hate these fuckin’ guys. Nearly every critic had this movie for lunch. Roger Ebert thought it was fair while other critics noted that the film was “squeezing the last drops out of a fatigued genre.” This was a film that found its audience over television, cable, and home video — and time has been kind to it with several modern critics calling it one of the greatest action films ever made.

WHAT DID I THINK?: Do you even have to ask?

When I was a kid, I begged my mom (and even my grandma) to take me to see “Big Trouble in Little China”. They refused (saying it “looked stupid” and I guess I couldn’t blame them) — but rented it for me and my brother when it came out in video stores.

I have adored this movie ever since.

One of the most amusing things about this movie is that Jack Burton is such a macho idiot. He’s one of those guys who thinks he’s cooler than he actually is, despite the fact that he knows how to fire a gun and is good in a fight. One would imagine being a truck driver might put you in situations where you might have to defend yourself.

As he’s yelling “what, why, how”, his friends are running around, doing the dirty work for him. They’re taking beatings and giving them, running off walls and doing the damage that needs to be done to save the day. It isn’t for lack of trying to bring Jack into the circle of trust.

If only he’d listen.

But when they relate a story about angry Chinese gods and demons, Jack’s reaction is, unfortunately, “This is all ridiculous. Where’s my damn truck?”

But Jack is John Wayne in the middle of a kung-fu film.

He’s a slightly more bumbling version of Ash landing in King Arthur’s court.

He’s the ultimate fish-out-of-water.

This is also what makes him, and the film, a little endearing. “Big Trouble in Little China” is East-meets-West on acid.

Kurt Russell and Dennis Dun make such a great team and have a hell of a chemistry as Jack and Wang. You believe they’ve been friends for years and have a deep, mutual respect for one another. They make the film tick. Kim Cattral is also hear as Gracie Law, a lawyer hellbent on helping the less fortunate and a love interest for Jack that never seems to progress past a brief kissing session. Veteran actor James Hong is a lot of fun here in as the demon Lo Pan who just wants to be human again so he can somehow rule the galaxy per an old Chinese prophecy. This might be one of his most memorable roles ever. He’s so good, the perfect mixture of shrewd and arrogant and you almost sympathize with him in a way. The cast is rounded out by the late Victor Wong who plays Chinatown tourist bus driver, Egg Shen, who is what Eddie (Donald Li in an underappreciated role) describes as the “local authority on Lo Pan”. Think of Yoda as a cantankerously happy teacher and you get the idea.

I don’t really think this is a horror film but it’s one that I’ve adopted as October viewing because, to me, this is a “ghost story” with horror elements and it gives the viewer yet another insane battle between good and evil. It’s anchored by atmospheric production design. San Francisco itself becomes a supporting character and one can look no further than the outstanding opening sequence, establishing who Jack and Wang are.

Jack drives into a Chinese shipping dock late at night as it’s pouring rain. The dock has several animals which will be sold as poultry and Jack and Wang are seen eating, drinking, gambling into the night under a makeshift tent. Everyone’s yelling and laughing and having fun as the opening credits go on. You can almost make a sensory connection to what you’re seeing. You can feel the cold and the rain, taste the food, and that feeling of being steeped in what you’re seeing lasts the entire film.

It also helps that the special effects work is top-notch from the Storms to Lo Pan’s transformations to the optical lighting effects. Remember Boss Film Studios? Yep. This is Richard Edlund’s company again. They work the same magic they did when they did the FX work for “Ghostbusters”. It’s gorgeous.

“Big Trouble in Little China” is not so much a movie as it is an experience.

It goes from 0 to 60 quickly, indulging those who tuned in for some good action. What audiences did NOT expect (and what they didn’t see again until 1996’s “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn”) was when the film went from 60 to “WHAT THE HELL?!” with its tale of sorcery and monsters and demons and the ultimate battle for the heavens.

It’s that last part that still gives me goosebumps.

“We really shook the pillars of heaven, didn’t we, Wang?” Jack asks.

“No horseshit, Jack.” Wang replies, smiling.

Indeed.

GRADE: A

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