Movie Review, Big Trouble in Little China, an Unforgotten Classic, reviewed by Pope Gryphon
Starring Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong
Director John Carpenter
Screenwriter Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein
Studio Twentieth-Century Fox Corporation.
Some movies boast a dialogue that is so deep it can dance along subjects, distributing insight and epiphanies like they were tissues at a nose marathon. Some movies blind the viewer with cinematography that captures the essence of the scripts emotion with such panache, they emblazon images upon the very soul and leave us emotionally worn out due to shared sensation. Other movies hold close to their breast a cast of characters who’s acting is without flaw, unsurpassable in their delivery and gripping with their every motion.
This movie is none of the above.
So why is this a classic? Well, perhaps the simple fact it is a film from the infamous John Carpenter that will explain it perfectly. You’ve lived under a rock on the moon all these years and have no idea what I’m talking about? Then how do you know how to use the Internet, huh? huh? OK, enough of that. John Carpenter is the king of the madcap and insane, a pioneer of intricately odd, over the top or cheesy creations that probably started out trying to be serious films but inevitably ended up as black comedies that were so utterly terrible that they came out the other side into the realms of good once more.
It is with this in mind that Big Trouble in Little China flourishes. It is awful. It is quite possibly the cheesiest movie that has ever been created by man. It literally sweats gorgonzola and craps Dutch Edam. But it doesn’t care! And you know what? Neither do we.
Allow me to present the plot in order for you to commence building this monument of so-bad-it’s-good within your mind: Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is an all American truck driver. He’s a beer swigging, baseball loving, poker playing badass. If you cut him, he’d bleed red, white and blue in spurts of stars and stripes. Upon his merry travels of logistical delivery, his journey lands him in China Town where the appeal of bright lights, unreadable neon and ancient rituals (that pass entirely over his head) yell to the gambling monolith that dwells within his soul. Having cleaned out the locals through several hands of poker, one of his opponents, Wang (Dennis Dun), attempts to procure some dignity and finance by betting him a double or nothing stake on the next hand. Jack unfortunately has been bedding lady luck and wins said bet, only to discover that his friend was bluffing about having the cash on hand to pay him. Wang promises though that he will be able to settle the debt once he has collected his fiancé, Miao Ying (Suzee Pai), from the airport. Wang has already lied once to him, so being suspicious of a further bluff, Jack decides that he will go to the airport with him.
Straight forwards so far? Good stuff. At the airport things begin to take a turn for the bizarre. Miao Ying is a beautiful Chinese woman who possesses rare green eyes. This fact draws the attention of an ancient immortal sorcerer, Lo Pang (James Hong), who requires such a woman in order to break a curse that had left him little more than a spirit amidst the world of mortals. He dispatches his minions, the Lords of Death, who kidnap Miao before Jack and Wang’s very eyes, whisking her off to his subterranean lair for the impending ritual that, with perfect timing, can only be carried out approximately 90 minutes after the movie starts (curious how this time frame pops up often).
So begins a quest that shakes the foundation of fantasy and has Tolkien trembling for fear his own writings were the mere scribblings of children (this sentence sponsored by Sarcasm-R-Us – we reeeeeeally do care). As the Lords of Death begin a campaign of terror and assault upon China Town, a gang war breaks out unleashing its own brand of hell upon the streets. Kim Cattrall even pops up as a wise cracking reporter and begins to argue with Jack in a classic film stereotypical “I hate you so much I’ll probably sleep with you at the end of this film” manner.
So our foundation is set and we see Jack, Wang and all their friends embark on a rescue mission that forces our main protagonist to change his rock solid ‘this is Sparta’ mind in order to cope with the ever growing disbelief that the mystical arts are real. Headlong we plunge into mind-expanding calamity, guns, swords, spooky magic and scenes that once observed will imprint themselves on the viewers psyche as recognisable classics. For example, Jack charging into mists after a bad guy with bravado, only to come charging back screaming as he is followed by an entire army of said bad guys’ chums. And let us not forget Thunder, Rain and Lightning, the elite of Lo Pan’s minions, whose cross fertilization created Mortal Combat’s Raiden.
This movie will never win an Oscar, but it is tighter than a cat on a liquid diet as a package. It is so tongue in cheek that too much wit would cause a new piercing through the facial lining. The acting is terrible, yet entirely perfect for the general ambience of this movie. You can literally feel the fun the actors and actresses must have had filming this. It has bullets flying against martial artists who are secure in their own ability to whiz around like marionettes, beautiful women contrasting the honour of the Chinese against the rambunctious nature of America, large trucks and a bargain bucket load of clichés all dropped into a melting pot of dazzling lights and mysterious street rolling steam clouds. It is a spectacle that becomes precious and one is inexplicably forced to embrace it with lurid affection as an easygoing masterpiece painted by brush strokes of stupidity. Truly, this movie is a classic, perhaps not like Raging Bull, but certainly in the vein of Gremlins or more recently, Zombieland.
All hail the King of Corny, John Carpenter, standard-bearer of so-bad-it’s-good films the world over. A special toast to Victor Wong, 1927 – 2001, a name we may not recall, but a face that is unforgettable.
Jack Burton: Just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”