Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
April 5, 2018 6:35 PM - Subscribe

An All-American trucker gets dragged into a centuries-old mystical battle in Chinatown.

Empire: An American tribute to the Hong Kong sword and sorcery genre, in the spirit of efforts like Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors From Magic Mountain (practically unseen outside of ethnic theatres and film festivals in 1986). This is one of John Carpenter’s more amiable pictures, taking its tone from Kurt Russell’s John Wayne-influenced performance as the confident leading man who reverses the Green Hornet-and-Kato white hero/Asian sidekick tradition by bungling every task he is called upon to do (he’s the sort of guy who shoots at the ceiling and then is surprised when lumps fall on his head) while super-efficient Chinese fighters get him out of trouble.

NYTimes: If, as is not unlikely, you should lose track of what is going on in ''Big Trouble in Little China'' and think you have wandered into a festival of ''Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' ''Romancing the Stone,'' ''Star Wars,'' ''The Karate Kid,'' ''Flash Gordon'' and a throng of facsimiles, don't be concerned. What matters is the stunts and the spirit, and this latest set of exotic exploits of an indomitable hero (Kurt Russell) and a spunky heroine (Kim Cattrall) gives good value.

AV Club: But Russell is pretty great as Jack Burton, the big-rig driver who gets mixed up in Chinatown’s deep, deep underground. I’m not sure whether his low-wattage John Wayne impression is deliberate, but it’s pretty damn funny. And that’s just the voice. The look is great, too: He wears high-waisted jeans and a wifebeater throughout pretty much the whole movie, and he’s rarely without a knife or a machine gun. But he’s never a tough guy, which is why it works. He’s an unevolved everyman, supremely confident in everything he says, but basically outmatched by the world and his situation.

Roger Ebert: It will be interesting to see how the Chinese stereotypes in "Big Trouble in Little China" are received by the Asian-American spokesmen who condemned last year's "Year of the Dragon." This movie is straight out of the era of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, with no apologies and all of the usual stereotypes. If they didn't like "Year of the Dragon," they're sure to hate this movie. And yet, as we unveil the rehabbed Statue of Liberty and warm up for the Fourth of July, it seems to me that "Big Trouble in Little China" is just one more example of the way every American ethnic group has been fodder for Hollywood's mill. It may not be true that Chinatowns are honeycombed with subterranean throne rooms, but isn't it kind of fun once in a while to pretend?

Slant: Big Trouble in Little China pokes fun at the xenophobia and racial stereotyping that lie at the heart of pulp literature’s tradition of the evil exotic (most memorably embodied in Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu), at the conventions and gestures of the martial arts genre, at the clichés of the fantasy film, and at itself. It does this not only through plot and dialogue but by giving great roles to wonderful actors like James Hong, Victor Wong, Chao Li-chi, and Denis Dun, who not only do solid work, but rise to the opportunity to mock the ethnic stereotyping that characterized the roles they were more often called upon to play.


Big Trouble in Little China Oral History

Big Trouble In Little China: From Flop To Phenomenon

Stop Making Sense: The Lunkheaded Genius Of Big Trouble In Little China

34 Things We Learned From the "Big Trouble in Little China" DVD Commentary

'Big Trouble in Little China,' and why John Carpenter gave up on Hollywood

LA Times: Asians Divided Over 'Big Trouble'

How ‘Big Trouble In Little China’ Opened Doors For Asian-American Actors In Hollywood

Yo, Is This Racist? Podcast episode on Big Trouble in Little China
posted by MoonOrb (31 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up loving this movie, specifically for the sendup of the whole Mighty Whitey thing. I can see why some people were really upset about it, but it's maybe the first takedown of 'white guy can do everything better than the natives' story that I've ever seen. It was really clear to me, even as a boy, that Burton wasn't intended to be the hero.
posted by mordax at 6:56 PM on April 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

This has got to be one of my top 5 most favorite movies, and I've seen it many many times. It was the first time I can remember that I really thought about what it meant that Burton was the main character, but he is obviously not the hero. And it wasn't until this movie that I really thought about the many problems in the "kung fu" or pulp movies for which this was both a commentary and a sendup. It's not without its problems, but it's a solid outing for everyone in it.

And of course Kurt Russell with lipstick all over himself still makes me giggle, it's so perfect. And it's so much a product of its time, it brings me back to being a teen again. Oh man, now I want to see it!
posted by gemmy at 9:12 PM on April 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

Jack is pretty brave for an "everyman", so I don't 100% subscribe to the "Wang is the real hero" interpretation. He has excellent reflexes and is a skilled gambler. He and Wang make a good team. Jack gets the best lines, Wang gets the best moves. It's one of my favorites from childhood as well. You didn't often see monks picking up AK-47s and gold-plated revolvers in martial arts movies, so it had some unique bombast.
posted by Brocktoon at 12:08 AM on April 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

It has one of my favourite hand waves in any movie when Egg Shen re-appears to save Jack and Wang. "How'd you get up there?" "It wasn't easy!" and *boom* on with the ass kicking :). I <3 Egg Shen.
posted by invisible_al at 5:22 AM on April 6, 2018 [9 favorites]

It was only 3-4 years ago that I realized that this and Chinatown are actually totally different movies. I basically spent my whole life being entirely confounded by the idea that people thought Kurt Russell with all the lipstick was such a cinematic masterpiece; I mean it is, but in a different way.
posted by odd ghost at 6:49 AM on April 6, 2018 [12 favorites]

Forget about it, odd ghost, it's Big Trouble in Little China...
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:11 AM on April 6, 2018 [11 favorites]

You know I didn't rewatch this film because so many films from the 80s upon rewatch are just so painful. I'm tickled to know this one might be safe.
posted by miss-lapin at 8:22 AM on April 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you like the film, I highly recommend the Jack Burton / Snake Plissken crossover comic. Wacky fun that stays (fairly) true to the original characters.
posted by Gaz Errant at 9:04 AM on April 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Jack is pretty brave for an "everyman", so I don't 100% subscribe to the "Wang is the real hero" interpretation.

Even as someone who disagrees with that specific point, I really liked that Burton was such a fundamentally decent person who is certainly doing his best. It kept the story from feeling mean-spirited.

I <3 Egg Shen.

Egg Shen ruled.

"Make you feel better, like Dirty Harry."
posted by mordax at 9:12 AM on April 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have very complicated feels about this movie, as a Canadian of Chinese descent, but in the context of the era it gets a pass from me - the intentions were good, the execution of the 'exoticism' can be excused.

Russell is one of my favourite actors in part because he can laugh at himself (also see 'Tango and Cash').

Thanks Gaz Errant for the heads up on those comics!
posted by porpoise at 9:28 AM on April 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

Ah I forgot to mention that Jack also saves Wang's life in the airport parking garage just when the action starts to kick-in. He's a hero that smells like a fish market, and gunfighting isn't really his thing. Egg is thousands of years old, and he tells his lawyer exactly who Jack Burton is at the beginning of the movie. And the biggest mistake Lo Pan ever made, across thousands of years, was to steal Jack Burton's truck.
posted by Brocktoon at 9:38 AM on April 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

"Now this really pisses me off to no end!" is frequently heard in our house.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:49 AM on April 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

This is one of the best edited movies ever. Nothing fancy, just getting every little part of the pace right.

Also, goddamn can James Hong hold a scene together. This is basically his movie.

The one that gets play in my household is "You were not brought upon this world to 'get it'!"
posted by selfnoise at 10:08 AM on April 6, 2018 [8 favorites]

Like, just to elaborate, the whole scene where they pull into the side street into the funeral escalates at exactly the right pace; just a little too fast, so the audience's confusion and alarm matches Jack's. Then things just KEEP escalating until Jack is running over a ten foot tall dude.
posted by selfnoise at 10:11 AM on April 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

It was only 3-4 years ago that I realized that this and Chinatown are actually totally different movies.

“And you’ll go off and control all the water in the Los Angeles Basin.”
posted by MrBadExample at 11:25 AM on April 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

I love the scene before the big fight when they drink Egg Shen’s potion and they’re all just high AF in the elevator.

Also, I totally get why people would have a problem with the film, but it opens with Jack partying all night in Chinatown with his friend Wang and thr locals like it was the most normal thing in the world, which was kind of new to me growing up in a small and not all diverse Canadian town.
posted by rodlymight at 11:44 AM on April 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

Oh yeah! For me the line that gets repeated, usually around the office when the shit is obviously about to majorly hit the fan: I got a very positive attitude about this.
posted by Naberius at 11:55 AM on April 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

When I find myself in a situation where some sort of patriotic utterance is required, I often fall back on "May the wings of Liberty never lose a feather."
posted by Uncle Ira at 11:58 AM on April 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

Every evil lair should have a neon accented escalator. Just adds that perfect touch of class to the joint.
posted by Eddie Mars at 12:10 PM on April 6, 2018 [8 favorites]

Also I was walking allaway across campus for a class today and it was blustery and snowy and I was thinking to myself

A brave man likes the feel of nature on his face

...and there was no Egg Shen to remind me what a dumbfuck I am!
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 12:57 PM on April 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Another I really need to watch front to back, seen most but depending on the last 20 minutes I've seen my opinion ranges from omg cheesie crap to what a subtle commentary on.... or maybe try to reproduce it with a supercut of old jackie chan stunts, dirty dancing reaction shots and bits of sex in the city...
posted by sammyo at 1:35 PM on April 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Not to be forgotten, Lo Pan Style.
posted by Quonab at 2:48 PM on April 6, 2018 [7 favorites]

When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:15 PM on April 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

When I saw this movie I had never seen any Hong Kong opera kung fu movies so every bit of it seemed completely bonkers. Basically I was Jack Burton. Later, when I started binging on kung fu moves, (which I had to root through bins in San Francisco China Town for, mostly as video CDs), I realized the lightning eyes, and the hats over the eyes, and the floating wizards were basic tropes.

I still love big pieces of this movie but the women's characters are useless and annoying and Kim Cattrall's constant yelling over people makes me fast forward every time.
posted by small_ruminant at 6:29 PM on April 6, 2018

Kim Cattrall's constant yelling over people

It's me, Gracie Law!
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 8:24 PM on April 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

I needed this.
So quotable. So comic book-style. And it took forever to figure out that Jack is NOT the hero in this movie.
posted by TrishaU at 12:28 AM on April 7, 2018

You had me with the connections to Buckaroo Banzai. This movie is all sorts of crazy and fun. Pretty much if you roll solid with this and Buckaroo Banzai, I will grill you a lot of meat. On. Demand.
posted by jadepearl at 6:24 AM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I'd say Jack Burton is a hero in the movie. There are kind of a lot of them, and part of me would like to see this done as one of those 40-episode Wuxia TV serials (especially one with slightly dodgy special effects), so everyone could get more space to breathe, but maybe the time is past, and we should appreciate it for a loving but flawed tribute to stuff (often done better) in the Hong Kong movies of its era....
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:54 PM on April 7, 2018

I love this movie so much. It's hard to pick a favorite scene, because first it's Wang's aerial swordfight, then it's the interrogation scene where Lo Pan and Jack match wits, then it's basically everything Egg Chen does.

Also, killer soundtrack.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 6:06 PM on April 7, 2018

James Hong is a national treasure.
posted by tobascodagama at 10:48 AM on April 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

I feel kind of invincible.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:04 PM on April 9, 2018

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