Many years ago an evil magical warlord named Lo Pan ruled the distant land of San Francisco, with an iron fist. For plot reasons Lo Pan kidnaps the fiancé of Wang Chi, a restaurant owner who knows kung fu. But in doing so Lo Pan and his army make the mistake of stealing the big-rig truck of the most stubborn, crazy, and mullet-wearing truck driver in America, Jack Burton. As one might expect, Big Trouble in Little China is no Oscar contender but whatever the film lacks in class it easily makes up for it with a sense of adventure, bombast, and self-parody.
Big Trouble in Little China is essentially director John Carpenter’s comedic ode to martial arts movies. As seen in his previous works (The Thing, Halloween, and Assault on Precinct 13) Carpenter is a straightforward director but he is also a very rowdy one as well and it shows in Big Trouble in Little China. More than just massive fight sequences and stale fortune cookie joke, the film is loaded with bright magic, wonderfully ridiculous costumes, explosions, skeletons, and there is even a cave troll, it just randomly appears but at that point the film already had me hooked in its lunacy. Such random spectacle would reduce lesser films to a rambling mess but Carpenter keeps the story in focus, making it feel like an Indiana Jones film on coke.
The anchor that keeps the film grounded is Kurt Russell’s self-effacing yet charming performance as Jack Burton. What makes Jack Burton so funny and fascinating is how clumsy and out of place he is in the story. The thing with Jack Burton is that thinks he is an action hero but is about as effective as a truck driver can be against an army of kung fu fighters. If anything Wang Chi does all of the hard work while Burton trips through most of the conflict. Kurt Russell plays up his goofy action star persona to emphasize Jack Burton’s ineptitude and he never loses his charm or composure in the process. Jack Burton could easily look like a stubborn jackass but Russell’s natural self-aware charm lightens the character into an ineffectual hero that anyone can root for. Burton is cocky but he knows that he is out of his depth, which makes his willingness to help his friend Wang Chi even more admirable.
Big Trouble in Little China is a film that merely aims to please and that is perfectly fine because of how much it gets right. It is loaded with fantastical Jackie Chan style action and with enough magic to blow up a circus tent. Best of all is that it is all anchored by a funny self-deprecating performance by Kurt Russell. If there is a major flaw with the film is that it offers little depth beyond Russell, the action, and the special effects but at least it has a sense of adventure. To this day, bad blockbusters like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and The Expendables have this problem of being made by filmmakers that coast on the momentum of their newest special effects tools. Things like 3D cameras, CGI, and Smell-O-Vision can only engage the audience for so long if the plot and characters are treated like an afterthought. This is why I love John Carpenter’s work because at his peak he always found adventure in the stories he worked on. Sure the whole plot of Big Trouble in Little China stems from some jerk trying to get his truck back but he is an endearing and fun jerk to hang out with. Ultimately, Big Trouble in Little China is like a hilarious tall tale being told by a very close and possibly drunk friend at a party and who does not love that?