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Empire List # 430: Big Trouble in Little China

Among the great partnerships between actors and directors you can count Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, John Wayne and John Ford, and my personal favourite, Kurt Russell and John Carpenter. Together they made an Elvis Pressley biography, a horror movie (“The Thing”), and a post-apocalyptic action movie (“Escape from New York”). With “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986) they tried a mash-up of three genres: comedy, martial arts, and action. The result is a blend of Chinese legends, monsters, kung fu fighting, and Kurt Russell trading quips with Kim Cattrall in the San Francisco underworld. Man, movies were crazy in the 80s.

I saw this particular genre mix back in 2009 while spending the summer in Vancouver as a summer student. Wonderful beaches, but since I only had three courses and didn’t know a lot of people in town I had a lot of free evenings. Always count on iTunes to have a large variety of titles at low prices if you want some home entertainment. Rather appropriate, since the movie was a cult hit on video. It’s the second chance medium for movies like that. First they burn at the box-office, then they’re brought back to life on home video and eventually someone is making a festival based on that one movie. Although given the crazy stuff that happen in Carpenter films, I don’t expect to see a “Big Trouble…” festival anytime soon.

The plot is so bizarre that the best way to approach it is through the eyes of Kurt Russell’s character. He plays Jack Burton, a fast-talking trucker who rolls into San Francisco’s Chinatown looking for a little fun with his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun). They go to the airport to pick up Wang’s fiancée Mio Yin (Suzee Pai) only for her to be kidnapped by a Chinese street gang. Jack and Wang chase them to Chinatown and are caught up in a fight between two ancient feuding societies who have mystical powers.

Their fight brings face-to-face with Lo Pan (James Hong) a 2000 year sorcerer who intends to use Mio Yin to…actually, I am not a 100% sure what he intends to do with her. I lost track of the plot when the guys who look Mortal Kombat characters showed up in the streets shooting lighting out of their eyes. Suffice it to say that Lo Pan is the villain and he has evil intentions towards the damsel in distress. Jack Burton will help his Chinese friends take him down because he has a hero complex and also because they stole his truck. What’s a hero without his ride?

Also, what is a hero without a leading lady? Kim Cattrall plays lawyer Gracie Law (not the most subtle name for a lawyer) who helps the citizens of Chinatown against the local crime lords. Unlike Jack, she actually knows a thing or two about the local culture so she joins in on the adventure. She is the brain between the two of them whereas Jack just likes to shoot, throw knives, punch and ask questions later.

What stands out about Russell’s character is the fact the he isn’t really the hero. If anything, he’s the sidekick. He’s just a truck driver, not some invincible special ops warrior on leave from a war. When he tries to fire a gun half the time he misses. Once he even shoots the ceiling and is knocked out by falling debris. Dennis Dun and the rest of the mostly Asian cast are all martial arts fighters who could probably beat him to a pulp if they had to.

Yet Kurt Russell is one of the reasons why the movie works. Well it didn’t work, it bombed at the box-office when it first came out, but like most of Carpenter’s movies it found new life on video. I guess over time people rediscovered this crazy movie featuring a thousand-year-old villain, exploding henchmen, and Kurt Russell firing one-liners like Bruce Campbell in “Evil Dead II.” Sometimes a concept is so crazy it can’t work on the big screen, but over time you can enjoy with a bag of chips and an ice-cold beer. It doesn’t hurt to be buzzed to have a good time at the movies.

The plot may be ludicrous, the special effects are admittedly sub-par by today’s standards, by “Big Trouble in Little China” survives by being a truck-load of fun with Kurt Russell at the wheel and John Carpenter giving him directions. 


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