Supernatural Fun

by J.D. Lafrance

“What I’d like to do today is get your version of what happened,” says a mild-mannered, middle-aged attorney. “Oh? You mean the truth,” replies a rather small, aging Chinese man who identifies himself as bus driver, Egg Shen. The attorney remains skeptical as his potential client calmly describes his belief in Chinese black magic, and other supernatural phenomenon. As if to prove his point, the man holds up his hands so that they are parallel to one another. Suddenly, small bolts of blue electricity begin to flow from each palm, much to the attorney’s amazement and Shen’s bemusement. “That was nothing,” Shen states. “But that’s how it always begins. Very small.” And with this intriguing, tell-me-a-scary-story teaser, John Carpenter’s film, “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986) takes us on a ride into the heart of ancient Chinese lore and mythology.

Carpenter, always the maverick director with a knack for exploring off-beat subject matter (see “They Live” and “In The Mouth of Madness”), has created a film that simultaneously parodies and pays homage to the kung fu film. This often maligned genre, is given a new level of respectability by Carpenter’s film that is rarely seen in Hollywood. Gone are the ethnic slurs and stereotypes and that annoying quasi-Chinese music that always seems to accompany representations of Asians in past mainstream features. Carpenter and his film take great care in presenting funny and intelligent characters without caring whether they are Chinese or not. What is of paramount importance to Carpenter is telling a good story and “Big Trouble”does just that. He has created an entertaining piece of fantasy that manipulates the conventions of the action film with often comical results.

From the engaging prologue, “Big Trouble” takes us back to the beginning with the first appearance of truck driver, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) — a good-natured, fast-talking legend in his own mind. When he and his buddy, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), go to the airport to pick up the latter’s future bride arriving from China, a mix-up occurs. Wang’s bride-to-be is kidnapped by a local gang of Chinese punks and the duo quickly find themselves immersed in the middle of an ancient battle of good vs. evil with immortality hanging in the balance. This struggle takes place deep in the heart of the “Little China” neighbourhood of San Francisco with Burton and Wang Chi taking on David Lo Pan (James Hong), “The Godfather of Little China.” Even Egg Shen (Victor Wong) appears to help our heroes and provide them with means to stop the evil that threatens not only “Little China,” but of course, the whole world.

John Carpenter had wanted to do this kind of film for some time. Even though “Big Trouble” contains elements of an action / adventure / comedy / mystery / ghost story / monster movie, at it’s heart it is really, in the filmmaker’s eyes, a kung fu film. “I have dug the genre ever since I first saw “Five Fingers of Death” in 1973. I always wanted to make my own kung fu film, and “Big Trouble” finally gave me the excuse to do just that.” Carpenter was offered the movie in July of 1985 by producers Keith Barish and Paul Monash. After reading W.D. Richter’s script he decided to direct. Carpenter loved the off-the-wall style of Richter’s writing and coupled with his love of kung fu films it is easy to see why he jumped at the opportunity to make “Big Trouble.”

The script was originally written as a period Western by writers Gary Goldman and David Weinstein but it was virtually unreadable due to the bizarre mix of the Wild West setting and Chinese mythology. Richter, a veteran script doctor (and director of another cult film, “Buckaroo Banzai”), was brought in by Barish and Monash to update, streamline, and extensively rewrite the script which Carpenter subsequently revised.

Problems began to arise when Carpenter learned that the next Eddie Murphy vehicle, “Golden Child” (1986), featured a similar theme and was going to be released near the same time as “Big Trouble” was slated to open. The filmmaker commented in an interview at the time that, “’Golden Child’ is basically the same movie as ‘Big Trouble.’ How many adventure pictures dealing with Chinese mysticism have been released by the major studios in the past 20 years? For two of them to come along at the exact same time is more than mere coincidence.” To avoid being wiped out by the bigger star’s film, Carpenter began shooting “Big Trouble” in October 1985 so that 20th Century Fox could open the film in July 1986 — a full five months before “Golden Child’s” release. This forced the filmmaker to shoot the film in 15 weeks with a $23 million budget.

To achieve the efficiency that he would need for such a shoot, Carpenter surrounded himself with a seasoned crew from his previous films. He reunited with longtime collaborator, cinematographer Dean Cundey who had worked with the director on his most memorable features: “Halloween” (1978), “Escape from New York” (1981), and “The Thing” (1982). Carpenter wanted Cundey on board because in the filmmaker’s opinion, “he works very quickly, and is responsible to his budget.”

“Big Trouble” also saw Carpenter re-team with his old friend, actor Kurt Russell who has appeared in several of the director’s films, most notably “Escape From New York” and “The Thing.” At first, Carpenter didn’t see Russell as Jack Burton, but after the two began to go over the script, the character started to take shape. For Russell, the role was a nice change as Carpenter remembers, “Kurt was enthusiastic about doing an action part again, after playing so many roles opposite ladies recently. So off we went.” After watching “Big Trouble” it’s impossible to see anybody else as Jack Burton.

Russell perfectly nails the macho swagger of his character: he’s a blowhard who’s all talk, totally inept when it comes to any kind of action and yet is still a likable guy. It is the right mix of bravado and buffoonery, a parody of the John Wayne action hero much in the same way Russell made “Escape From New York’s” Snake Plissken a twisted homage to Clint Eastwood. He showcases untapped comedic potential that ranges from physical pratfalls to excellent comic timing in the delivery of his dialogue. One only has to look at his scene with the elderly Lo Pan to see Russell’s wonderful comic timing.

By many of the actors’ accounts, Carpenter is a director open to suggestions and input from everyone involved. Dennis Dun’s character starts off as the sidekick of “Big Trouble” and ends up accomplishing most of the film’s heroic tasks while the film’s initial hero, Jack Burton becomes the comic relief. Dun enjoyed the freedom he had on the set. “John gave me a great deal of leeway to develop my character and pretty much let me do what I wanted. He just encouraged me to be as strong as I could. He gave me a lot of freedom.” This freedom results in a very strong performance from Dun who holds his own against a veteran actor like Russell. In fact, the chemistry between the two characters is one of the many endearing qualities of “Big Trouble.”

The chemistry among the rest of the supporting cast — a colourful assortment of characters — is also impressive. Burton’s love interest and source of constant aggravation is Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), a pushy, talkative lawyer who acts as the perfect foil for deflating the truck driver’s macho ego at every opportunity. “Big Trouble’s” script cleverly avoids the trap of reducing her role to a screaming prop by having Gracie take an aggressive part in the action. “Actually,” Cattrall said in an interview, “I’m a very serious character in this movie. I’m not screaming for help the whole time. I think humor comes out of the situations and my relationship with Jack Burton. I’m the brains and he’s the brawn.” There’s a great give and take between her and Russell. Their characters make for an entertaining screwball comedy couple: he’s always on the make while she constantly fends off his obvious advances. And yet, you know that they really like one another.

Another refreshing aspect of “Big Trouble” is the way it is immersed in Chinese myths and legends. The film could have easily made light of their culture, but instead mixes respect with a good dose of fun. “Big Trouble” also places Asian actors in several prominent roles, including Victor Wong and Dennis Dun who is the real hero of the story, as opposed to Kurt Russell’s character who is a constant source of comedy. “I’ve never seen this type of role for an Asian in an American film,” Dun commented in an interview, “I’m Chinese in the movie, but the way it’s written, I could be anybody.” “Big Trouble” crushes the rather derogatory Charlie Chan stereotype by presenting interesting characters who just happen to be Chinese.

Unfortunately, critics and crowds did not care about this radical reworking of the kung fu film. “Big Trouble in Little China” came out before the rise in popularity of Hong Kong action stars like Jackie Chan and filmmakers like John Woo. Mainstream audiences weren’t ready for this kind of film. Despite being promoted rather heavily by 20th Century Fox, “Big Trouble” disappeared rather quickly from theatres only to be rediscovered on video as a celebrated cult film with a dedicated audience. It has since become one of the most beloved films in John Carpenter’s career and with good reason. “Big Trouble” is a fun, clever movie that still holds up today and remains one of the finest examples of cinema as pure entertainment.