Review by J.T. Johnson
ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: July 2, 1986
DIRECTOR: John Carpenter
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Dean Cundey
WRITERS: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W.D. Richter
MUSIC: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
Writers Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein wrote “Big Trouble in Little China” as Western set in the turn-of-the-century San Francisco. They were inspired by a new wave of martial arts films that had emerged at the time. Unfortunately, the studio did not really like their initial script and writer W.D. Richter was brought onboard to do an extensive overhaul.
This is when the script took shape and was closer to the film that we ended up with. Director John Carpenter was then hired and he did a few rewrites that expanded certain characters and also eliminated certain material that was deemed offensive to Chinese Americans. Fox tried to remove Goldman and Weinstein’s name from the screenplay, but the Writers Guild of America deemed that Goldman and Weinstein deserved credit, but they gave Richter an “Adapted By” credit instead.
This is actually a Carpenter film that took me quite awhile to actually view for the first time. In fact, it was probably about 10 years ago when I finally caught this zany tale of an American trucker who gets involved in some weird shenanigans in Chinatown. Kurt Russell re-teamed with Carpenter to play Jack Burton, a no-nonsense truck driver that ends up trying to rescue a woman that is set to marry Jack’s friend, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun).
Soon, they are all entangled in a story involving ancient Chinese demons and sorcery. Burton and Wang have to stop the evil ghost Lo Pan with the help of supporting characters such as Kim Cattrall’s Gracie Law and Victor Wong’s Egg Shen. This all just a setup though for some pretty wacky ‘80s action scenes filled with instantly quotable dialogue (“Son of a bitch must pay.”) that is now featured in the pop culture lexicon.
Unlike most of Carpenter’s films, which usually involve heavier horror elements, this one is where the director and his cast just get to have a lot of fun. The special-effects have a wonderfully dated feel that actually feels appropriate for the unconventional film. The acting for the most part is also pretty good, though I will admit that I could deal without Kim Cattrall as Gracie Law.
Another thing that I like about this film is the fact that Jack Burton is really nothing more than a goof whose eyes we see the story through. It is really Wang Chi, his “sidekick”, that is the main character that gets things done. Most of the time, Burton somehow avoids most of the action, including getting knocked out or searching for his lost knife during a fight.
This was not done unintentionally as Carpenter has since stated that he wanted to take the idea of the stereotypical American hero and sort of turn it on its head. This could have blown up in everyone’s face, but Russell saves the day as he makes Burton a genuinely good guy that you still root for even though he’s a bit rough around the edges.
“Big Trouble in Little China” is pure entertainment for entertainment’s sake. It is without a doubt Carpenter’s biggest film but also the one with the greatest sense of fun to it. “Big Trouble” is ultimately a true testament to ‘80s filmmaking and like most of Carpenter’s films, it is a genuine cult classic.