"Ol' Jack always says... what the hell?"
An outlandish, uncategorisable blend of John Ford (and, by extension, John Wayne) and cornball Chinese mysticism, John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China is a hokey martial arts adventure flick with limitless appeal. The characters are both endearing and witty, with the actors hamming it up to extremes. Meanwhile Carpenter provides directorial genius, suspenseful set-ups, edge-of-your-seat action and a signature musical score. Big Trouble in Little China is simply a delightfully absurd action movie that never takes itself too seriously, although it isn't for all tastes.
In his fourth collaboration with director Carpenter (after Elvis, Escape From New York and The Thing), Kurt Russell plays an imitable, good-natured truck driver named Jack Burton. During one of his trips to San Francisco, Jack's truck is hijacked and he's unwittingly swept up in a universe-bounding plot to kidnap the fiancée of his friend Wang (Dun). The whole situation concerns warring gangs that dwell in the Chinatown underground, and an ancient supernatural spirit named Lo Pan (Hong). But Jack couldn't care less about any of this...he just wants his truck back.
This is not your ordinary kung fu flick, to say the least. The slender plot is virtually indecipherable; merely providing a reason to showcase lots of things happening in colorful settings for no reason other than to have lots of things happening in colorful settings.
Alas, character development is slim and an audience isn't given much of a chance to become acquainted with the characters before they're sent into action. However the dialogue never fails to sparkle and the endearing characters will win you over anyway. Big Trouble in Little China mainly works so well due to Carpenter's stylised direction and the breathless pacing. We're taken from one chase to another; Carpenter continually removing his characters from the frying pan and throwing them into the fire. This ever-escalating chain of events always keeps things moving forward, and never allows the movie to bog down (even the few expository scenes necessary to fully outline Lo Pan's dastardly scheme are brilliantly terse). Carpenter's willingness to let ridiculous, unexplained things fly in out of left field is another masterstroke. The character of Margo (Burton) at one stage likens this peculiar adventure to Alice in Wonderland.
The subterranean lairs which accommodate most of the action are great - hokey enough to emphasise the film's camp appeal, but not so hokey that they look like sets. Big Trouble in Little China features plenty of special effects too - and the somewhat dated effects add to the enchanting flavour. Carpenter always respects his influences. He maintains the B-Grade spirit of Hong Kong cinema while also fusing it with his own style and satirising it with a unique campness. From the score's synthesis of Eastern music and Carpenter's trademark synth to the arcade-style battle between two characters and the villain being defeated with a simple bowie knife to the head instead of a grand duel, Carpenter nails the tongue-in-cheek kung fu comedy genre. One definitely needs to be in the right mindset for this movie.
Kurt Russell as Jack Burton is priceless - he's a witty, tough-talking everyman hero in the mould of John Wayne. Unlike John Wayne, however, Jack is not immune from screwing up. Jack has a knack for getting into extreme situations, he believes he has everything figured out, he constantly messes up, and he makes a lot of grand pronouncements and wisecracks (he even talks about himself in the third person a lot). Russell's Jack Burton will definitely win you over with his cheesy bravado. Interestingly, he ain't the real driver of the plot - he's Wan's sidekick and he's just there to find his truck. Jack is, however, the true star of the show
Just like John Carpenter's The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China performed poorly at the box office upon its initial release but has grown vindicated in the years to follow; earning a legion of fans who understand what Carpenter was trying to do. Ancient Chinese mysticism and kung fu is expertly blended with good old-fashioned American gunplay to produce this high-energy mélange of action sequences. You know what ol' Jack Burton would say at a time like this? Jack Burton would say "see this movie!"