Film Fridays – ‘Big Trouble in Little China’

Film Fridays is a project initiated by Sarah and I. After doing a daily music challenge for a month last year we talked about doing something similar for movies. The current global lockdowns give us the perfect excuse to start. Many of us are confined to home with only the TV for company so we thought we would start β€˜Film Fridays’ so that we can talk about our favourite movies and hopefully give our readers some ideas for things to watch. If you join us please tag filmfriday and link back to one or both of us so we can read your own contributions!

We would be delighted if you would join us! We don’t necessarily want to talk about the nerdy technical details but more about why these films speak to us as individuals, why they have a place in out hearts, and any personal memories they evoke. 

Sarah and I have shared our lists and decided to tackle them as written – in my case in alphabetical order because I am sad like that….

‘Big Trouble in Little China’

The trailer is on Youtube at:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXsBBqPb5YE

Another bit of 80s fun!

Big Trouble in Little China (1986) follows ‘hero’ Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) as he helps his Chinese buddy Wang (Dennis Dun) rescue his girlfriend from a magical cult headed by the sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong) in his lair beneath San Francisco’s Chinatown.

I have a long memory (at least for trivia). There are several 80s movies which I recall being poorly received critically at the time (even though I loved them) but which have grown in stature since. Often even the same harsh critics have retconned their own reviews – they know who they are. I am thinking of movies like ‘Blade Runner’, ‘The Thing’ and the subject of this week’s post – Big Trouble in Little China’.

By 1986, director John Carpenter was firmly established as one of my favourite movie makers. More than 30 years later he remains so. I rewatch his films far more than those of his contemporaries except, perhaps, Spielberg.

When I saw this in the cinema on release in 1986 I was delighted to see Carpenter enjoying the tools placed at his disposal by working with a big studio. (His previous feature ‘Starman’ also benefitted from a big budget after a decade of his independent film-making.) Sadly, Carpenter was so disillusioned by the critical and box-office failure of BTILC that he returned to independent movies, though he admits to having been pretty much burned out by this stage in his career in any case. Some of his subsequent movies as director had occasional flashes of his talent (‘They Live’ especially) but he would never again reach the heights of the decade that started with ‘Dark Star’ in 1975. (Several of his movies between 1975 and 1984 will feature in these posts in their alphabetical turn.)

None of this takes away from enjoying BTILC as a viewer of course. This movie is a lot of fun. Described by Carpenter himself as a “action/adventure/comedy/kung fu/ghost story/monster movie”. As if this were not enough of a genre mashup it was originally written as a Western! Interestingly, this was not one of Carpenter’s own writing projects but instead he was given the directing job by the studio. He agreed as he had always wanted to make a martial arts movie. Though not credited as a writer it is on record that Carpenter modified the script extensively – most notably to increase the female roles and to remove some material he thought likely to offend the Chinese-American community.

BTILC is slyly subversive in a way that Carpenter does so well. By this stage in the 80s the Hollywood action movie was all about the big all-American gun-toting muscle-bound hero saving the day. BTILC turns this on its head. Though being the character who dominates the poster, ‘hero’ Jack Burton is actually a bit of a self-aggrandising but well-meaning, accident-prone idiot and is really the comic sidekick to Wang – the real hero of the tale and martial arts expert. Of course, these days, being an all-American blowhard with delusions of competency is enough to get you elected….

Kim Cattrall’s Gracie Law and Suzee Pai’s Miao Yin are the female leads. Thanks to Carpenter’s script-doctoring Cattrall has rather more to do than the typical love-interest female character of the time. I like her performance in this movie too, and it shows she is far better than her previous roles in, for example, Police Academy, had demonstrated.

There is very strong support from a number of respected Chinese actors, especially James Hong and Victor Wong. At one point Jackie Chan was offered the role of Wang but was advised to concentrate on his career in Hong Kong at that time. It is interesting to speculate how the movie’s dynamic would have been changed with such a larger-than-life actor in the role. I love Jackie Chan and find him hilarious, but I fell he would not have been right for this film. Dennis Dun plays Wang perfectly.

The martial-arts sequences, and choreography generally, are well handled. Set design is gorgeous. Visual effects are mostly good, though in places the ideas are overambitious for the technology of the time.

Undoubtedly, though, it is Russell’s Jack Burton who dominates BTILC. His character a world away from the previous roles Russell played for Carpenter in ‘The Thing’ and ‘Escape from New York’. Russell trained hard to reach the muscle-man image needed for the role but it is his easy charm and flair for comedy that really stand out. His willingness to play the fool makes the film such fun.

This is also possibly the most quotable movie on my list – there are lots of lists of Jack Burton quotes out there on the internet!

When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, looks you crooked in the eye, and asks you if you 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 you paid your dues, Jack? Yes, sir, the check is in the mail.”

29 Comments

  1. Sometimes I think I live in a parallel movie universe. I could describe in mind-numbing detail some art-house films from 1986, but have never seen many of the Hollywood movies that form the backbone of popular culture. This is proving to be a really interesting project for me!!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I discovered the Auckland Film Festival the year I started university, and by the end of my (rather long) time there, I was pretty much only seeing “festival” stuff and anything that was being made in NZ or Australia. I was never really a fan of action movies anyway, so I might still have missed BTLC.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I can understand that Su. Though I loved a lot of 80s movies there were whole genres of them that I still have not seen to this day – for instance any of the ‘Brat pack’ movies. I see lots of references to films like ‘The Breakfast Club’ but have never see it so am totally in the dark.

          Liked by 2 people

              1. Hey! I’ve been banging on your door for about an hour before I gave up and went back home again! You could have told me that you didn’t want to share your chili Nachos with me. πŸ˜‰

                Liked by 1 person

                1. Now I am seriously worried because I DO have a bag of chili Nachos left in the now-depleted naughty food cupboard. However, given I was watering pots next to the front door for much of that hour I am impressed you got past meπŸ˜‰πŸ˜

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. Damn! I should have taken off my invisibility coat (which I was of course wearing to avoid getting caught by the authorities for traveling in these dangerous times)! Stupid, stupid!! πŸ˜€

                    Liked by 1 person

  2. I believe this one’s considered a cult-classic! It’s been AGES since I’ve seen this, really wonder what I’d think of it now. I’d probably appreciate so much more because I was a kid when I saw this. Reminds me of whenever you watch something as adult and then you’re suddenly picking up on all the innuendos and jokes you totally missed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head there Lani. When I was a teenager I loved the animated kids show ‘Dangermouse’ and some of the sly humour was way over the heads of its intended audience.
      I think with BTILC a younger person would take it more at face value for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Sometimes a bad memory is a good thing. I can read a detective novel again after only a few weeks and not recall who dunnit!
      This is one of those movies I will happily repeat-watch as I find something new each time.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. What a great film to pick for the challenge, Darren!! πŸ˜€ Loved it so much when I watched this as a kid (repeated times), and would love to watch it again for the same reason as Lani! I think I might have had even a little crush on Kurt Russell back then. 😁 And Kim Cattrall is one of my favourite actresses!! I didn’t know that about Jackie Chan having been offered the part – love him too! – but just as with Tom Selleck/Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones I think it was good that he didn’t do it in the end.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Sarah!
      Totally agree about the Selleck/Ford thing too. Both are great but the right one got the role. I loved Magnum P.I. and suspect you did too?
      I laughed when I heard Kurt Russell was cast as Quill’s father in Guardians of the Galaxy part two because I could not imagine anyone more perfect for that role.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely! Loved Magnum P.I. – and am furious about the fact that they’ve been making a newer version of it – ugh!
        Oh yes, Russel was perfect for the roll! πŸ˜€

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s