Big Trouble in Little China

Big fun in a little box
John Carpenter
Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong
The Setup: 
Trucker gets involved in a supernatural gang war underneath San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Knowing that this has been a popular cult favorite for some time, it has been on my list forever. So one weekend when I was totally bored with my Netflix selections, I went to the store for something more exciting and ended up with this. The woman at the video store was rhapsodic about what a fabulous movie it was, and how it featured Kurt Russell at the zenith of his hotness. She turned out to be right on that point.

So Kurt is Jack Burton, loudmouth truck driver who is introduced riding down the highway talking into his CB and noshing on a giant sandwich. He arrives in San Francisco, where he parks his rig in Chinatown and wins a large sum of money from his buddy Wang Chi. He can’t pay, but somehow involves Jack in going to the airport to pick up his fiancée.

Kim Cattrall as Gracie Law is also at the airport, waiting for HER friend. But alas, there are also thugs waiting at the airport to abduct Wang's fiancée, and they all escape in a nick of time. Then Jack and Wang happen into a giant gang war in the middle of Chinatown. They are trying to play it cool and be quiet in Jack’s truck, when these three guys in giant lampshade hats descend from the sky and kick righteous ass with their mystical powers. This is when Jack thinks he may have happened into something weird.

Then for some reason [I watched this a few weeks ago, actually] Jack has to pretend to be a customer at a brothel, in order to get to Wang's fiancée, who is being held there. But wouldn’t you know it, the three lampshade guys descend from on high and take her first, intending her to be the bride of LoPan, who is the big bad dude of the Chinese underworld. Or something.

So by now one can’t help but notice this movie’s highly developed sense of the goofy. Jack is a blowhard badass who thinks with his fists, and has lots of unmotivated [and funny] attitude for everyone who crosses his path. The rest is also all over-the-top ridiculous, with Cattrall especially getting some of the best, cheesiest, exposition-rich lines such as “The Rico Exchange?! Not the most terrifying band of cutthroat men in Chinatown!”

I can’t even go into the rest of the story—not least because I don’t remember it—but it has to do with Jack and his friends descending into the underworld to get the women back and restore order and all that. Along the way you get some wonderfully clever setpieces and bizarre sights, like the one just below. One thing you kind of notice is that Jack never really does anything very heroic, he just happens to be present during several fights and showdowns. He is kind of a ridiculous figure with his loudmouth responses to everything [to the all powerful LoPan: “Are you crazy? Is THAT your problem?”] and oblivious way of barging in to everything. I have been scolded by multiple readers [i.e. two] to more clearly hit the point that the punchline of the movie is that Jack is really the sidekick, not the hero, but is completely oblivious to this fact. Anyway, the movie maintains such a cheerful, isn’t-this-ridiculous?, anything-can-happen vibe that it’s hard not to be amused.

The movie this most closely reminded me of was Buckaroo Banazi, which turned out not to be a accident. Carpenter bought the script from Gary Goldman and David Weinstein, when it was a Western. Everyone liked the general idea but thought the script was absolutely dreadful, so they gave it to W.D. Richter, the writer of Buckaroo Banzai, who gave it a major rewrite, but unfortunately couldn’t claim credit due to some bizarre writer’s guild regulation. I ended up liking this considerably more than Buckaroo Banzai, thanks in large part of Russell’s hilariously oblivious take on the character, but they do seem very much of a piece. It seems doubtful that anyone with a sense of fun in their movies wouldn’t like this one at least a little bit.

Should you watch it: 

Sure! It’s a silly fun B-Movie, and doesn’t try to be anything but.

BUCKAROO BANZAI was written by the same guy and shares this film’s sense of the ridiculous.