When Big Trouble in Little China was released in 1986, it caused big trouble at the box office and failed miserably. It’s one of those movies that wasn’t appreciated in its time, only morphing into the cult classic that it is today because audiences have since decided it’s worthy of their love.
I’ll be honest, it’s my favorite John Carpenter movie. There are so many reasons why audiences love it like I do. The martial arts, the score, the action, the story, Jack Burton and all his funny dialogue. Personally, I always loved the San Francisco Chinatown setting as well.
The film opens on a rainy highway, where we soon see a truck and hear Jack Burton’s (Kurt Russell) voice as he talks on his CB. One of the most memorable of his opening lines? “The check is in the mail.” At least, it became an inside joke in my family.
Soon, we witness Jack winning a bet from his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), but collecting on that bet is a little more difficult than Jack or the audience had anticipated. Before Wang can pick up the money he owes Jack, he has to pick up his fiancée, Miao-Yin (Suzee Pai), from the airport. While Jack flirts with lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and Wang is looking for Miao-Yin, they fail to miss danger lurking in the form of members of a Chinese street gang. While they intend to take the girl that Gracie is picking up, they end up taking Miao-Yin instead.
From there, Wang and Jack charge through San Francisco, reaching Chinatown intending to find the gang members, only to be caught in a battle in the middle of an alley. They also meet “The Three Storms”, who begin “flying around on wires cutting everybody to shreds” according to Jack. In an attempt to get out of the fray, he drives his truck, hoping they will all move. They do, but Jack runs over none other than David Lo Pan (James Hong), the true villain of the film. Jack certainly knows how to make an impression–in this case, it was a bad one.
From then on, Jack finds himself in the midst of battle, Chinese sorcery and just about everything else beyond his wildest dreams as he helps Wang save Miao-Yin from Lo Pan’s clutches. Lo Pan needs Miao-Yin to break an ancient curse, and she can do that for him, given she has green eyes. Jack and Wang are aided by sorcerer Egg Shen (Victor Wong), Gracie, a reporter named Margo (Kate Burton), and Eddie (Donald Li).
Initially, Jack and Wang head into a front business of Lo Pan’s alone and end up captured. When Eddie, Gracie and Margo try to save them later on, they are also taken prisoner. They fail to save Miao-Yin, but they do save a number of other girls locked up in holding cells. While escaping, Gracie is the only one left behind, thanks to a disgusting monster resembling an orangutan that makes off with her.
Next time, Jack, Wang, Egg Shen, and a small army of the Chang Sing crash Lo Pan’s wedding ceremony to save Gracie and Miao-Yin, resulting in another epic battle. Wang pretty much kicks ass and Jack manages to make out with Gracie, which makes his final confrontation with Lo Pan hilarious, given he faces the old and evil sorcerer with lipstick on his mouth. However, thanks to his quick reflexes, Jack strikes Lo Pan in the forehead with his trusty knife. Now that Lo Pan is mortal, he immediately dies.
Jack, Wang, Gracie and Miao-Yin, now reunited, must escape The Three Storms, which they successfully do with help from Egg Shen and make their way out, finding Jack’s previously stolen truck in the process and using it as their getaway vehicle.
The group has a happy, victorious reunion at Wang’s restaurant, with Miao-Yin and Wang planning to marry and with romance on the horizon for Eddie and Margo. Not so much for Gracie and Jack, as Jack takes off, ever the lone wolf. Unbeknownst to him, the orangutan creature has hitched a ride on Jack’s truck. We never had a sequel, but now that he’s survived big trouble in little Chinatown, it’s safe to assume that Jack took out one last monster for the hell of it.
Martial Arts, Looks, Special Effects & Sorcery
One of the impressive aspects of the film is how the special effects hold up to this day. Granted, the 1980s didn’t have the technology that we have now, so it may pale in comparison to, say, the Avengers movies. But for the 1980s, it deserves a shout-out.
I found the lightning powers from Lightning of The Three Storms to be one of the most impressive special effects. It looked realistic, like he truly held the power of lightning, and it made his character appear that much more powerful, threatening, and dangerous. The light coming from David Lo Pan, especially from his mouth, was also noteworthy and made his character look creepier and yet alluringly dangerous. Jack is the first to get a glimpse of the light, rendering him termporarily blind in the alley until Wang helps him get away.
The make-up artists and costume department deserve props for Gracie and Miao-Yin’s wedding make-up and attire. It resembles Chinese heritage, and the make-up was obviously tedious and exact. No doubt Kim Cattrall and Suzee Pai spent significant time in chairs in the make-up department.
The sorcery aspect of the film was a nice complement to the film in its entirety. Not only do audiences get to see a flawed but funny hero, martial arts, a love story, and strange creatures, but they also get to have some sorcery mixed in. Usually films with so much going on tend to lose their main points, but Big Trouble in Little China never wavers from its main goal: save the girl. Of course, they manage to save the day too, but that’s just a perk of saving the girl. The sorcery is a means to an end, a part of what Jack and the others must do to save Miao-Yin, and later, Gracie.
Martial arts are a huge part of Big Trouble in Little China. Wang’s skills are definitely enviable, as clearly he’s the standout martial artist. Jack bumbles his way along beside him, his knife his go-to. Martial arts appear early in the film, given the showdown in the alley. Wang hints at his skills beforehand, when he tries to trick Jack into slicing a bottle. The final battle in which Wang is flying through the air while fighting one of the Storms is particularly impressive.
The only scene I found a little too orchestrated was when Wang and Eddie were fighting the guards while Jack was freeing the women from their holding cells. It seemed fake to me, like the guards knew when the hits were coming—in particular, the guard who ends up going over the rail.
For the most part, though, the film doesn’t fail to deliver, whether it’s martial arts, special effects, looks, costumes, or sorcery.
John Carpenter is one of the best composers out there. From Halloween to Big Trouble in Little China, his compositions are memorable and always appear to perfectly suit the scenes of which he wrote the scores for.
Carpenter adds a Chinese aspect to his score for Big Trouble in Little China, and most of them hold a fast-pace, like “The Final Escape (Lo Pan’s Demise/Getaway)” and “Abduction From Airport.” It’s an unusual score, a standout from all others because nothing else sounds the same, and that includes Carpenter’s scores from his other films. When you can make a composition that people will recognize and only associate it with the film it was actually in, you know you’ve done well.
It’s a fun score to listen to or to just have as background music while you work. If you’ve seen the movie as many times as I have, you imagine in your mind what happens in the movie for every beat of the score’s soundtrack. Or you at least have a general idea. Either way, it makes working a little more fun when you have the music of the movie playing.
David Lo Pan and the orangutan creature win this one, hands down.
David Lo Pan looks normal enough as a young guy, but as an old guy, he’s terrifying and frankly wouldn’t be featured as one of People‘s sexiest men alive. His hair is so thin it’s see-through. His skin is riddled with liver spots. The paleness of the skin makes it appear almost transparent. He’s a tiny, frail old man. However, the truth is that he’s incredibly deadly, so his appearance as an old man is definitely a good way to fool anyone into thinking they’re out of danger. Perhaps that’s why Jack felt so comfortable insulting him upon meeting him while Wang looked terrified—at least Wang knew who Lo Pan really was, and what he was capable of.
The orangutan creature is definitely one-of-a-kind. His face is just about the ugliest you’ve ever seen. He looks like he’s drooling half the time. I’ll be honest, the monster grosses me out to this day. Yet, I have to admire the creativity when it comes to the monster’s design. John Carpenter is no stranger to monsters. Among the monsters he’s shown onscreen, the orangutan creature is definitely one of the best, if only for his looks. He doesn’t need to be especially scary, his appearance does that for him.
Jack Burton of the “Pork Chop Express” is a memorable character. He acts all macho but it’s just an act. He’s obviously freaked when he drives through Lo Pan and when he kills someone, for example. Who wouldn’t be? Jack tries covering it up to look tough, but it doesn’t escape audiences’ watchful eyes.
Though portrayed as the hero, Jack is really the sidekick. It’s Wang who’s always kicking ass and saving the day. Though, he couldn’t do it without Jack’s help. Their friendship is definitely a meaningful one. How many people would go through what Jack did to help Wang get his fiancée back?
Though Jack is lacking in the martial arts department, he does have some incredible reflexes, and he knows it, too. The knife to Lo Pan’s head and the prevention of the bottle hitting his face are notable examples. He likes to brag that “it’s all in the reflexes.”
At the end of the day, Jack’s a good guy. He’s a hero in his own way. His ego definitely increased after surviving and winning the battle alongside Wang and the others, but I found it suiting that the orangutan hitched a ride on his truck of all people, giving Jack a run for his money. Don’t we all wonder what happened between Jack and the orangutan monster to this day?
I have to mention the title of the film itself. I’ve always admired it. Big Trouble in Little China is a clever title. It says so much but it’s straight to the point. It makes perfect sense, especially when you know what the movie is about. Even if you don’t, the title is interesting enough to attract audiences. The movie poster is also noteworthy in that regard.
In any case, Big Trouble in Little China is a cult classic for a reason. The monsters, the sorcery, martial arts, special effects, the characters, the quotes. There’s so much to love in one movie, and it’ll forever be a cult classic.