Given the cult status and wide appreciation of Big Trouble in Little China nowadays, it’s hard to imagine that when it was first released in July of 1986 it was a commercial and critical failure. Big Trouble only grossed $11.1 million of its estimated $25 million box office takings, and critics such as the late, great Roger Ebert described the film as “straight out of the era of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, with no apologies and all of the usual stereotypes”, and many saw the same year’s similar-themed and styled Eddie Murphy-helmed The Golden Child as the superior model. So bad was the reception and financial situation that legendary director John Carpenter decided to abandon Hollywood and return to independent filmmaking, producing two of his best films up to that point, Prince of Darkness (1987) and the sublime They Live (1988). But that was 1986; now, a lot of fans consider Big Trouble one of, if not the best Carpenter film-and Russell film-of the lot.
Charming, witty, fun, and incredibly watchable, Big Trouble in Little China tells the immortal (no pun intended) tale of no-nonsense, clumsy, yet kind-hearted truck driver Jack Burton (Russell) and his task to help his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) rescue his girlfriend Gracie (Kim Cattrall) from the clutches of evil sorcerer David Lo Pan (played brilliantly by James Hong), who requires green-eyed young women to complete the ancient Chinese ritual of releasing him from a curse. And that’s about it, really. So simple is the premise, and so enjoyable is the fun that surges forth from it that Big Trouble genuinely feels like one of those great nostalgic fantasy movies from the 1980s, in the vein of The Goonies (1985) or Gremlins (1984), where the lead is likable, the supporting cast does just that: supports, and where the special effects still seem quirky and colourful yet retain their excellence in comparison with today’s over-saturated CGI.
I’ve heard the accusation levelled at the film that it is racist in its depiction of Orientals and Asian culture in general, and while it is a little similar (as Ebert put it) to the old Fu Manchu films of the 1930s and 1960s, it retains enough charm and panache in its actors that any racial discrimination claims fall by the wayside. All the Chinese actors are clearly having fun playing sorcerers and henchmen, and the chemistry between them and the good-guy trio of Russell, Dun, and Cattrall works so well as to avoid potentially offensive portrayals. This is the thing with Carpenter: he knowingly flirts with the darkness in his movies, and even indulges in it deeply, but there’s not one Carpenter film that isn’t enjoyable. It’s a deadly lesson many directors (some even more well-established and received than Carpenter) ignore to their detriment today, making films that, while technically quite impressive, are all fireworks and no substance. Even Carpenter’s arguably worst film, Ghosts of Mars (2001), while inane and quite inferior to the output of his previous years, is fun. I can stand the worst-made and acted movies of all time if they are a kick-arse ride to endure, and make me laugh and fist-pump the air now and again.
Halloween (1978), while terrifying, cements its elements of good fun and camaraderie with the girls before Michael Myers even starts his killing spree; The Thing, while also utterly unbearable in its tension, is believably began as a boys’ adventure themed story, with a group of men stuck in the Antarctic together; even Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), the rule-book on post-western modern siege pictures (essentially a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1959 western Rio Bravo) employs action movie chutzpah and finesse to ensure its 91 minutes are nothing if not enjoyable throughout.
I digress slightly, but my point is that through producing a well-made, well-acted, and thoroughly enjoyable action-adventure-fantasy, the Carpenter brand (if not acknowledged at the time) was more than established and refined by its release, and indeed, this was the fourth of five collaborations that Carpenter would conduct with Russell during their long-lasting and still current friendship, and it is easy to see how well the two men understand one another in each movie they make together. I almost see them as the 1980s equivalent of the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost or Nicolas Refn/Ryan Gosling-type of duo that one sees in today’s auteur film circles.
With talk of a remake starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (which I actually think could be okay) in the works, now seems as good a time as any to revisit one of the very best films of the Carpenter and Russell filmography.