The last couple of weeks have maybe featured some strange picks here on this Cinematic Century project. I’ve kind of bucked expectations and really embraced the central idea of this project, choosing my favorite movies of the year, not necessarily the “best” film of any given year. Which, has occasionally given me some regrets, wondering if I really did choose the right film to cover. But, I don’t have that problem this year. Because while there are a lot of great movies released in 1986, there is one that is a clear winner to me. John Carpenter’s incredibly weird masterpiece Big Trouble in Little China is one of my favorite films of the decade, and there was really no way that I was going to talk about any other movie. Although, there are still some great movies. David Cronenberg’s the Fly is probably one of the bigger films of the year, and I would probably say it’s Cronenberg’s best film, while being a very nauseating experience. I’m also a really big fan of Michael Mann’s Manhunter, one of the absolute best adaptations of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter stories, and just dripping in that Michael Mann mood and aesthetic. I also have a real soft spot for Little Shop of Hororrs, as any right-thinking person should. Or, I could have thrown a real curve-ball and discussed what might be my all-time favorite Disney film, the Great Mouse Detective, which might be a slightly controversial choice, but one I fully stand behind. There’s also a trio of movies that I feel like a lot of people really love, but that just don’t do much for me. I’m not a huge fan of James Cameron’s Aliens, and really don’t understand how people like it more than the original film. As I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of John Hughe’s high school movies, and Pretty in Pink is certainly no exception. And, perhaps the most egregious of these films is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a movie that I frequently get a lot of shit for actively disliking. But, it just doesn’t do anything for me. Honestly though, there are only two movies that really threatened to topple Big Trouble in Little China for me. David Lynch’s werido suburban masterpiece Blue Velvet and Rob Reiner’s amazing ode to childhood Stand By Me. I love both of these movies, and they probably have a real chance in fighting for the title of “best” movie of 1986. But, if I listen to my heart, I need to talk about one of the weirdest and most confoundingly entertaining films I’ve ever seen. And, no, we’re not talking about Howard the Duck.
I’ve learned a lot of strange things about the movies I’ve highlighted over the course of this project, but I don’t think I’ve ever learned something stranger than the fact that this movie began life as a Western. Apparently screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Z Weinstein wrote this, on spec, that attempted to homage the newer martial arts films which utilized crazy wire effects and mysticism, all set against a Western backdrop. But, while the script was purchased, no one seemed to find the whole Western thing a good idea. So, it was given to a famous script doctor, W. D. Richter, who completely changed the entire setting of the film, moving it to a modern time-frame. And, because of the vast rewrites, a legal spat was started regarding who would even be credited as the screenwriter of the movie. And, with those auspicious beginnings, the script and project were given to John Carpenter, who then in turn decided that he wanted this film to resemble a Howard Hawks quick-witted comedy. Which, is an incredibly weird take on the material. Carpenter then began production of the film, and was informed that it was going to be a speedy one, because it turns out that Paramount was getting to release a vaguely similar film, the Golden Child, and they wanted this film to beat Paramount to the punch. So, with all of that drama and constraints, they set out to make a film really unlike many made in America up until that point, using a vast amount of choreography and special effects to replicate this newer trend in martial arts movies that would basically become the wuxia films. And, as you can probably guess, with all of these radically strange elements to the production of the film it resulted in a very peculiar movie, one which just didn’t land well. It was a huge box office failure, and generally ignored critically. But, like damn near every movie I talk about during this project, it eventually found its audience, largely due to the burgeoning home video and cable industry, finally becoming the sort of cult classic that it was probably always destined to be. And boy do I love this kind of nonsense.
Big Trouble in Little China ostensibly follows a loud-mouthed and brash truck driver named Jack Burton, and his story begins after he arrives in San Francisco’s Chinatown to hang out with a friend of his, Wang Chi. After a night of drinking and gambling Wang ends up owning Jack quite a bit of money, leading Jack to follow Wang throughout his morning to get his payment. But, before Wang settles up his debt he takes Jack to the airport to pick up his fiancee Miao Yin, who is arriving from China. However, while waiting for Miao they see a local street gang, the Lords of Death attempt to abduct a different Chinese girl. And, after Jack, Wang, and a lawyer named Gracie Law intervene they end up kidnapping Miao instead. Jack agrees to help Wang track down the Lords of Death and rescue Miao. Together they load into Jack’s truck and drive into Chinatown, where things quickly start getting strange. Because after getting trapped in an alley while waiting for a funeral procession to pass, a full gang-war begins between two local gangs. And, in the midst of all the murder, three wizards, the Three Storms, arrive and start hurling magic around. And, as Jack tries to flee from this unexplained event he ends up running over a fourth wizard, a man named Lo Pan, who seems barely bothered by being hit by a truck. Jack and Wang then flee through the streets of Chinatown, leaving the truck behind, and making their way back to Wang’s restaurant.
Once there they meet with Gracie Law, who has also brought a journalist friend named Margo, and a local sorcerer named Egg Shen. Together they inform Jack about the secret magical history of Chinatown. But, Jack doesn’t really care, he’s only concerned about his stolen truck and the chance to sleep with Gracie Law. But, he’s eventually convinced to help Wang find Miao, who they all believe is being held by the Lords of Death in a local brothel. And, they’re right! But, while trying to infiltrate the brothel they find the Three Storms arrive once again, specifically to steal Miao and bring them back to Lo Pan. So, realizing that Lo Pan is indeed involved in the kidnapping, Wang and Jack decide to infiltrate Lo Pan’s business front, getting inside his compound before almost immediately being caught and dragged before the boss. And, when they finally see him, they see that David Lo Pan is a wizened old man, trapped in his mortal frame. He explains that he is seeking out a green-eyed girl, Miao, who he can use to break a curse placed upon him, making him incorporeal unless trapped in this frail human body.
And, while Wang and Jack are learning all of this Gracie and the rest of the side characters arrive to save them, only to be captured themselves. Jack does end up freeing himself though, and attempts to escape with everyone so they can regroup, but is unable to save Gracie, leaving her behind. Which, is a problem, because she also has green eyes, leading Lo Pan to decide he can sacrifice one of the women and keep the other for himself. But, our heroes are deadset on stopping that. Thanks to a special potion given to them by Egg Shen, they crash Lo Pan’s attempted wedding and begin fighting. They’re able to take down one of the Three Storms, and are even able to witness Lo Pan momentarily defeat his curse, becoming corporeal again. Which, gives Jack the perfect moment to throw a knife right into him, killing the evil wizard. Our heroes rescue Gracie and Miao, and manage to locate Jack’s stolen truck, riding it out of Lo Pan’s hideout and back to Wang’s restaurant. Wang and Miao, thrilled to be reunited, continue planning their wedding, and Jack decides to head his own way, passing up any sort of romance with Gracie. And, as Jack starts driving off into the night we get to see that one of Lo Pan’s monsters has apparently hitched a ride on his truck.
Big Trouble in Little China is a movie that almost defies explanation. I did my best to write down the rambling plot of the film, but just reading about it doesn’t clue you into just how bizarre and insane this movie is. I’m a big fan of John Carpenters directorial work, and while he’s certainly most known for his horror films one of the things that I most enjoy from him is the fact that he really did try a bunch of different genres, putting his own unique spin on them. And, this film really does stand out among the rest of his filmography, a weird martial arts flick that has the dialogue of a witty 1950’s farce certainly isn’t the type of movie you’d expect form Carpenter, but he knocks it out of the park, all while making one of the more confounding movies I’ve ever seen. I once heard this movie described as if it were missing half the pages of its script, and I totally understand what they meant by that. The movie makes very little sense, and just kind of throws Jack, and the viewer, into an incredibly weird world that most of the other cast members understand already, and you’re just kind of expected to sink or swim. I would say a vast majority of Kurt Russell’s dialogue in this movie is him demanding to know what in the world is going on, and that weirdly works wonders for this movie, and makes it one of the stranger and more subversive action movies of the eighties.
When you look at this movie, it makes sense to assume that it’s a Kurt Russel action movie. I mean, look at the poster I put above, it’s primarily just Kurt Russel as Jack Burton, grinning and ready for adventure. But, as you actually watch the film you start to realize that this isn’t Jack Burton’s story. It’s Wang’s. Jack is just his dumb buddy who comes along for the ride. Everything in this movie actually revolves around Wang’s story. It’s his love who gets kidnapped, it’s his town they’re traversing, and it’s his knowledge that saves the day. Jack is just some bumbling American he know who show up and accidentally gets drawn into it, struggling to understand what’s going on. And, for the most part, he’s pretty ineffective. John Carpenter made a movie that certainly appears to be a typical 1980’s action flick on the surface, while subverting every trope and making a movie that just points and laughs at the woefully unequipped American dude. And, through that, I made a realization about this film. I love Big Trouble in Little China, and while watching it I realized that I love this movie for a very similar reason that I love the Big Lebowski. They’re both stories about characters that essentially come from different movies being thrown into a genre that they have no business being involved in. Jack Burton should not be thrown into a martial arts fantasy story. But, this movie tosses him headfirst into a weird world, and we get to just watch him flounder, to my vast entertainment.
Big Trouble in Little China was written by Gary Goldman and David Z Weinstein, directed by John Carpenter, and released by 20th Century Fox, 1986.
Categories: Cinematic Century