Despite some potentially problematic representation, “Big Trouble” is a wildly fun thrill ride that’s too endearing not to be enduring.
In honor of legendary genre filmmaker John Carpenter’s appearance at Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas, Texas, May 26-28, 2023, we’re spending the week honoring some of the Master’s lesser-heralded films. Welcome to John Carpenter Tribute Week!
We began John Carpenter Tribute Week by looking at his 1976 action/crime thriller Assault on Precinct 13. Today, we fast forward a decade later to his wacky fantasy/action/comedy whatsit from 1986, Big Trouble in Little China.
This was one of many films in the auteur’s oeuvre to flop upon release, only to be held up in the following decades as the classic it is. Ask a Carpenter fan which of his movies are their favorites, and there’s a good chance Big Trouble is going make the list.
There are certainly legitimate arguments to be made that Big Trouble in Little China hasn’t aged very well.
The Westernized version of Chinese mysticism, the fetishization of Chinese female beauty, and the overly submissive and demure Asian female character all mark it as a product of its time and the kind of movie that likely wouldn’t be made today.
In fact, it wasn’t exactly embraced by Asian Americans at the time, with some Asian advocacy groups speaking out against the film around its premiere.
That said, I do think there are reasons why the film still holds up and manages to avoid falling completely into the realm of negative cultural stereotyping.
Most crucially, our ostensible hero, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell in pitch-perfect dumb guy mode), is actually a total boob who screws things up at nearly every turn. The most truly heroic character in the movie is Jack’s friend Wang Chi (played with subtlety and strength by Dennis Dun). He’s the competent fighter, the one who kicks the most butt and wins the girl.
Sure, Jack manages to take out sorcerer Lo Pan (all-time genre MVP James Hong) with some quick reflexes, but it’s anticlimactic by design, more of a lucky break than a moment of true heroism.
That, I think, is what makes Big Trouble in Little China, and Carpenter’s entire body of work, so great: its ability to upend our expectations.
More than that, Big Trouble in Little China is just too much damn fun to stay mad at.
It’s full of wonderfully weird touches, from a fleshy floating spy creature to a sorcerer who inflates himself until he pops. It’s the kind of delightful practical effects that Carpenter’s movies are known for, courtesy of Boss Film Studios.
Beyond Russell, Dun, and Hong, there are plenty of other winning performances, including Kim Cattrall as plucky lawyer Gracie Law and Victor Wong as a rival sorcerer and moonlighting bus driver Egg Shen.
There are flamboyant warring gangs, elemental wizards, and Jack immediately getting knocked out by a piece of falling debris after wantonly firing his gun into the air. It might not be considered top-tier Carpenter, but it’s an absolute blast from start to finish.
If any AAPI folks assert that the cultural representation in Big Trouble in Little China is harmful, it’s extremely important to hear their perspective.
It’s certainly not for someone like me to say whether it is or isn’t. But I think the film was ahead of its time in certain ways, allowing the Asian characters to be the heroes of their own story, with the typical muscular white guy mostly just along for the ride.
There’s been talk of sequels and reboots in recent years, and I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen; some things just belong in their own time, with all the good and bad that entails.