There are a lot of movies that people look back on fondly as movies that helped define their childhood. Yet few are as revered as John Carpenter’s mystical, martial arts epic, Big Trouble in Little China.
The title may not necessarily roll off the tongue, as it wasn’t exactly a box office hit at the time of its release. Nor did it spawn any sequels (at least none apart from a recent comic book). Yet, it has endured a cult following that far surpasses others of it’s kind and continues to be loved by fans and respected by filmmakers.
As John Carpenter’s last major studio film, there were some leaps and bounds to go through. Yet, for the most part, Carpenter was able to write what he wanted, cast who he wanted and compose what he wanted to make the movie that he wanted to make. And the result was nothing short of spectacular good fun.
Now, as with his production company and himself in the film’s iconic lead role, let’s look back at why the film has had such a legacy and why, after three decades, it still holds up just as well now as it ever did.
What Is Big Trouble In Little China About?
Before we can examine a film we, of course, must talk about what it even was. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is the heroic story of an everyday, beer-swindling truck driver with his own set of rules who gets caught up in the mystical world of Chinese black magic when a centuries-old sorcerer kidnaps his friend’s fiancee to free himself of a curse and reclaim his power over the world.
The film starred Kurt Russell (a regular of John Carpenter films) as Jack Burton, Dennis Dun as his good friend — Wang Chi, Kim Cattrall as the nosy and ferociously independent Gracie Law, Victor Wong as the fearless bus driver Egg Shen, and James Hong as the powerful and sinister David Lo Pan.
Why Is It So Good?
There are a lot of reasons for a movie being good. Usually they come down to the basic three: acting, directing and writing. A movie that nails it home in those primary arenas has a solid chance of impressing its audience. But what are the enduring qualities that make a movie a beloved classic? And more so, what are the qualities that make such an obscure box office bomb such a beloved classic?
Let’s take a closer look.
Jack Burton Is An ‘Every Man’ Hero
The problem with most action movie characters is that, no matter how incredibly entertaining they can be, they are all a little too larger-than-life. They have unrealistic ideals and the near superhuman capabilities to be one man armies with the power of invincibility on their side.
Jack Burton, on the other hand, is a guy who just wants his truck back.
Sure, he has a moral code to help a damsel in distress that aids him through the film’s increasing risk factor, but at the end of the day he just wants the two things that mean the most to him: The return of his truck and the money he’s owed from a night of gambling. He’s rude, a bit of a drunk, not too nice to women and not very good with a weapon. But he’s “a pretty reasonable guy who’s just witnessed some pretty unreasonable things,” so we’re willing to let all of that slide. Because, you know what? Most of us are rude, a bit of a drunk and not too good with a weapon, too.
Jack Burton is the definition of a hero who never wanted to be a hero. He’s just a guy who got in way over his head and just happened to come out on top.
The Story Is So Complex You Can’t Help But Be Impressed
Big Trouble in Little China has everything from a rough-edged truck driver, to ancient sorcerers, to giant floating heads with multiple eyes, to guys who makes themselves explode out of anger, to giant insect creatures and the black blood of the earth. It’s a lot to process.
In fact, part of the reason the movie failed at the box office is because 20th Century Fox didn’t know how to promote it and, as a result, the film was overshadowed by the much more publicly anticipated Aliens. However, the writing team of Gary Goldman, David Weinstein and W.D. Richter (and director John Carpenter, of course) wove together an intricate story that was action-packed, funny, fast paced and incredibly entertaining. The weirder it got, the better it got, because Jack Burton reacted to shit with just as much confusion and disbelief as the audience.
Interestingly, the film was intended as a western and Jack Burton originally wanted his horse back. Carpenter made the decision to have it rewritten in modern times and the horse, obviously, became the Porkchop Express. It was the right call.
Lo Pan Is One Of The Greatest Villains To Ever Grace The Silver Screen
There are a lot of great villains in cinema. For most people, the villain is the most interesting part of the movie. Where the hero is generally motivated purely by the actions of the villains, the villain him (or her) self has a rich backstory of why they are doing what they are doing and a small part of you is rooting for them.
David Lo Pan has one of the richest backstories in history. Before building the largest import/export empire in San Francisco, he was a 2,000 year old sorcerer who almost dominated the world before being cursed by the first emperor of China to an incorporeal fate.
While on the precipice of getting his power back, Lo Pan is a menacing force to be reckoned with. You can drive your truck straight through him and he’ll come right back around and blind you with his eye and mouth light beams. You can’t make this stuff up. When he’s not doing that, he forced to wheel his 2,000-year-old form around in a wheelchair while he recharges the limited supply of power that he has. And trust me, that makes him cranky. In fact, it “really pisses him off to no end.”
It’s Just Non-Stop Action, Comedy And Fun
The same can be said of a lot of movies. But most of those movies have their flaws that are unforgivable to most fans. They may be fun, but they aren’t perfect. What does Big Trouble in Little China have working for it? Well, for starters it has the character inspiration for Raiden and Shang Tsung from popular game franchise Mortal Kombat.
From start to finish the movie is either funny, action-packed or deep and philosophical. and has one of the most patriotic toasts for one to drink by.
Undoubtedly, there’s a lot to love about Big Trouble in Little China. It’s one of Kurt Russell’s finest, most enduring performances. Sure, his Wyatt Earp was fantastic in Tombstone, but when you think of Kurt Russell you typically think of Jack Burton and/or Snake Plisken (Escape from New York is another timeless classic from Russell and John Carpenter).
I can remember being a kid and playing Jack Burton with my authentic Jack Burton toy gun and knife. It’s nearly impossible to not love the ’80s fun of Big Trouble in Little China that still, despite it’s age and setting, holds up just as well today as it ever did.
Like most movies, it would be understandable if fans have a huge outcry over the impending remake. The only reason I’m even entertaining the idea is because anything Dwayne Johnson touches is solid gold. I’m willing to see what he does with it. Even though, by his very physical nature, he already misses out on what makes Jack Burton who he is, it will need to be a very different take.
Do you love Big Trouble in Little China? Sound off in the comments section below.
And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter ( ) for all things rant and ravey. See you next time. And remember, as ol’ Jack Burton always says, “it’s all in the reflexes.”
Writer, Graphic Designer, Husband, Father, Geek and Aspiring Scripter of Moving Pictures