“The studio wanted Raiders of the Lost Ark, clearly that’s what they wanted. They wanted a movie like that. ‘Can’t you just do that?’ They didn’t ever actually say that to me, but I know that’s what they wanted. ‘Xerox it.’ But I had other ideas and I thought it would have been interesting at least from my point of view, maybe nobody else’s, but to make the white lead … You know in the Tarzan films, Tarzan is white and he always saves the natives. ‘Oh, thank you, Tarzan.’ It’s just ridiculous. I was like, ‘What about if your white lead is a complete fool?’” John Carpenter interviewed by Eric Vespe, aka Quint, for Ain’t It Cool News, June 2011
A gumbo of wildly divergent film genres handpicked from around the globe (head cook John Carpenter described his dish as “an action adventure comedy kung fu ghost story monster movie”), Big Trouble In Little China hasn’t lost its manic flavoring over the years. A generation of martial arts fantasies may not owe their existence to this production per se, but in a testament to its timeless élan, Big Trouble could be re-released and with the exception of Kurt Russell’s mullet, feel brand new. Blowhard trucker Jack Burton (Russell) rolls his rig into San Francisco on a dark and stormy night. Jack cleans the floor with Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) over a game of fan-tan and refusing to let his friend out of sight until he pays up, gives Wang a ride to the airport, where his green-eyed fiancee Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) is arriving from China.
When Miao Yin is abducted by a gang called the Lords of Death, Jack and Wang pursue the punks back to Chinatown, where they step into a brawl between the Chang Sing and their enemies, the Wing Kong. Exploding into the turf war are three supernatural warriors, Thunder (Carter Wong), Rain (Peter Kwong) and Lightning (James Pax), and their master, a 2,000 year old phantom named Lo Pan (James Wong). Jack and Wang escape and are clued by pesky attorney Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) that Miao Yin is being held by the Lords of Death in a brothel. Before they can spring her, the three storms whisk Miao Yin into an underground city, where Lo Pan must wed a girl with green eyes to lift his curse of the undead. Out of his element as he encounters booby traps, beasts and ancient sorcery, Jack unleashes as much destruction as heroics aiding Wang and the Chang Sing in the rescue of Miao Yin.
Big Trouble In Little China was the title of a spec script by Gary Goldman & David Z. Weinstein. Set in the Old West, its concoction of cowboys and sorcerers sold producer Paul Monash, until he opted to move the story into the present. When the scribes refused, W.D. Richter was put on the payroll. The script doctor kept the legend of Lo Pan and dumped almost everything else. A USC classmate of Richter’s named John Carpenter had been developing an adaptation of Erich van Lustbader’s bestseller The Ninja and when the project fell through, accepted an offer from 20th Century Fox to direct Big Trouble. The film went into production at the same time as Eddie Murphy’s new comedy The Golden Child, which also mixed wise cracking and Chinese mysticism. To compete, Carpenter felt he needed a star like Clint Eastwood, but Fox approved Carpenter’s regular leading man Kurt Russell for the role of Jack Burton.
Aside from dismal box office returns, the distinction Big Trouble In Little China holds over The Golden Child is the mythology; even the hero’s truck has a backstory. Among the many elements in its composition, the rarest is the rapid fire repartee that brings to mind Bringing Up Baby and qualifies Big Trouble as the first of its kind: a screwball martial arts comedy. While its fight choreography has been eclipsed by the way action movies are prepared today, Kurt Russell’s redneck bluster and his commitment to playing the fool from start to finish are a laugh riot. Instead of settling for spectacle, the script goes the extra mile, building a universe before mercilessly dismantling it. In a credit to casting director Joanna Merlin and stunt coordinator Kenny Endoso, every actor from Kim Cattrall down to the stuntmen seem in sync with the film’s whimsical goofiness.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 120,473 users: 78% for Big Trouble In Little China
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: N/A
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