TV / Movie Reviews

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Big Trouble in Little China “86”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Fantasy Martial Arts Action Comedy/ Stars: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Donald Li, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, James Pax, Suzee Pai, Chao-Li Chi, .Jeff Imada, Jerry Hardin/ Runtime: 99 minutes

I think it is safe to say that out of all the dynamic pairings between a movie’s helmer and its lead star that have ever existed there is one that I think is perhaps one of the most iconic in terms of impact on the world of pop culture. That of course being the dynamic duo that is John Carpenter-Kurt Russell. Indeed this dynamic partnership is one that showed itself to be one of the most enjoyable to watch especially at its apex in the 1980s as this duo decided to work together on a trinity of slices of cinematic pie that, in the time since their release, have seen their stock raise to become regarded as genuine cult classics. Not just in the respective genres that these films occupy, but also in just the world of movie magic altogether. Yet for all the amazing work that the riveting Escape from New York in 1981 and the visceral and delightfully bleak The Thing from 1982 respectively were able to accomplish on their own, I also feel like they were also meant to prepare us for 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China, a delightfully over the top slice of cinematic pie that blends exciting martial arts action with spot-on comedy of both a physical and verbal nature. Indeed even though this film is easily the least of the trinity of 80s Carpenter-Russell partnerships, it’s still a delightful and fun slice of cinematic pie that is merely a “B+” to the other 2’s “A minuses” that they were given. Not only that, but due in large part to being able to stand the ebbs and flows of the river time, especially when we now live in a world of movie magic that is simply overwhelmed by movies where the comedy either is void of charm or the action just feels staged and/or set against a giant green screen, I think it’s safe to say that in many respects the 1986 movie Big Trouble in Little China feels very much like an old compatriot come to visit or a delightfully tasty drink on a warm summer afternoon that is in equal respects refreshing, immensely enjoyable, and always a welcome sight to behold.

The plot is as follows: Big Trouble in Little China tells the story of a loud-mouthed, cocky, quippy, self-proclaimed man of action trucker by the name of Jack Burton. A man who, in addition to the aforementioned attributes to his name, is also a man who is quite fond of that distinct pastime that is gambling. Indeed here is a guy who takes no issue whatsoever in putting on the line his hard-acquired dough during routine stops in the district of Chinatown in San Francisco and in the process taking other people’s equally as hard earned cold hard cash even if that proverbial cash happens to belong to his loyal if not frustrated by Jack’s childish antics from time to time best friend Wang. Yet for all his purported “skill” at the art of gambling, we soon see that one thing he never would have bet on in a million years was finding himself becoming involved in fighting some truly mystical beings in the ominous and perilous underground of Chinatown. Yet when Wang’s green eyed bride to be by the name of Miao is nabbed by a deadly pack of thugs, we soon see Jack, Wang, and a consistently torn between being exasperated by Burton and his shenanigans/ finding him quite attractive to say the least lawyer by the name of Gracie strive to make their way into the perilous world of one Lo Pan. A man who incidentally also happens to be a very old member of the organization known as sorcery who requires a green eyed female in order to thwart a curse that had been laid on him long ago and in the process become human once more. Things get both more personal and serious for Burton though when Gracie, also of the green eyed variety incidentally, also is nabbed by Lo Pan and his minions as well with the idea in mind that either she or Miao will be sacrificed to help break the curse and the other is to be the nefarious sorcerer’s extremely reluctant lady love for all time. Now it is up to our intrepid “hero” (if you can call him that), Wang, and a group of others to combat through their way through Lo Pan’s army of men both ordinary and supernatural if they wish to save both Gracie and Miao let alone the day before the ruthless Lo Pan can fulfill his nefarious machinations….

Now I think it should be said right off the bat that Big Trouble in Little China is a slice of cinematic pie that gives the viewer one of the most linear narratives ever in the form of bad guys kidnap a pair of girls, and the good guys come to save the day. As a result of working with such a typical narrative, this slice of cinematic pie must utilize what isn’t told in that narrative byline in order to help it distinguish itself from the vast number of similar movies like it that audiences choose to watch instead. One way it is able to do this is, as even the title of the film seems to wink and nod at, the film plays out its entire hour and a half plus change runtime with its tongue firmly rooted in its cheek where it ought to be. Indeed there is not a single element to be found in this film to even remotely suggest that the movie is to be approached as anything more than just a fun time to be had through and through. To that end, we see that Big Trouble in Little China is able to cobble together a riveting and quite astonishing assortment of dated yet timeless special effects work, a wonderful amount of comedy, some riveting action beats, and a hint of something otherworldly that manages to aid both the engagement and comedy factors that are key to nearly every minute of the film. Yet be it through the utilization of sinister sorcery, exhilarating martial-arts, gun battles that will have you on the edge of your seat, and even some iconic fistfights thrown in for good measure, this slice of cinematic pie always manages to stay evenly balanced in such a way that it manages to please those in the mood for riveting action yet does it with a sly wink and smile as comedy also manages to bleed through and make the film and the other aspects at play within much lighter affairs than they would be otherwise.  It should also be noted that this slice of cinematic pie also has not just dependable helmsmanship from Carpenter aiding things immensely, but also another terrific entry in his synth score catalogue that including his musical accompaniments in such films as The Thing and, obviously, Halloween have become something a trademark for this iconic film helmer.

Yet perhaps the key thing which is the proverbial cherry on top and which makes the whole enterprise that much better just by his presence alone is the ever-dependable top-notch acting talent that is Kurt Russell whose turn in this slice of cinematic pie manages to be a truly career-defining effort in the best ways possible. Indeed, as portrayed by Russell, Jack Burton might seem like a tough and rugged man’s man, but just underneath that exterior is a scared out of his wits child who has just been immersed head on into a series of circumstances that the only way he can get out of them is to emerge genuinely victorious when all is said and done. Suffice it to say that it is the compare/contrast between these two distinct personalities which really helps to create a lot of the funnier beats in this slice of cinematic pie as we see the aspiring toughie time and time again bumble his way through situations since he really is no more and no less than an aspiring man of both action and the ladies even if everyone but him is able to see it. Yet regardless of how badly he tumbles his way through all the shenanigans the bad guys hurl in his direction as well as if his fellow allies are able to see the kind of guy he really is, Jack’s heart is still in the right place and that is one asset that proves to be stronger than any purported muscle he possess and more crucial than any intellect he purports to have as well. As for the rest of the cast in this film they also do top-notch work as well especially Dennis Dugan and Victor Wong who manage to give spot on performances that play perfectly with the inherent quirkiness and oddball shenanigans of the narrative.

All in all I think it is quite easy to say that the engaging and endlessly rewatchable perennial cult classic that is Big Trouble in Little China is a slice of cinematic pie that to this day is not just one of the defining let alone distinct entries in the subgenre of action comedy to emerge for audiences’ consumption in that iconic era of cinema that is the 80s, but it is also a slice of cinematic pie that was only possible courtesy of the immensely watchable and quite engaging partnership between its helmer John Carpenter and lead star Kurt Russell. A partnership that incidentally in the quartet of films that it managed to produce, darn near always gave us a slice of cinematic pie that was top-notch in both quality and entertainment value. Indeed it might not be as sprawling and thrilling as Escape from New York in 1981 or as frighteningly visceral as The Thing from 1982, but Big Trouble in Little China still manages to be a wonder all its own through the utilization of a brilliant mix of action, comedy, magic, and of course Kurt Russell in one of his more iconic performances. That and when you factor in wonderful back-up courtesy of a winning supporting cast and another score from the film helmer that is nothing short of iconic, I think it is safe to say that the slice of cinematic pie that is Big Trouble in Little China is one that most assuredly will continue to engage those movie goers looking for a comical adventure unlike any other for years and years to follow. On a scale of 1-5 I give Big Trouble in Little China “86” a solid 3.5 out of 5.