This film could only ever be a product of the 80s. I mean, everybody was kung fu fighting. Ninjas were everywhere on the big screen. What could be more 80s than a Chinese street gang in San Francisco who flip their knifes on the rhythm of synthesizer music?
Down to Earth American Kurt Russell plays Jack who supplies the Chinese restaurant of his buddy Wang (Dennis Dun). When he gives Wang a lift to the airport so that Wang can pick up his long-awaited Chinese love, she gets kidnapped by the black dragon gang or white tigers or something. Probably because she has much admired green eyes, like liquid jade. On the chase, Jack and Wang end up in a mysterious corner of Little China in San Francisco and get stuck in the middle of a gang war.
And then… at around the 20 minutes mark… it has to be seen to be believed.
It’s ok to laugh at this, because director John Carpenter meant for it to be over the top. China in San Francisco is a magical place, full of Chinese black magic and wizards. The best shots are the close-ups of ancient Chinese wizards when they are about to attack. This film is about as far from politically correct as it is possible to be when it comes to Chinese stereotypes but it is all meant as a joke.
The story moves really fast from one thing to the other, and the production values are high enough to keep up. Together with Jack and Wang we move through many locations and they all look great. There’s a heartwarming sense of adventure to this film. The joy of storytelling and filmmaking just flashes from the screen. The big baddy, Lo Pan, is really hard to take seriously as he squeals in a high voice and his henchmen look like vicious gardeners.
Jack is a great flawed hero who has no idea what he got himself into or what he is messing with. Being levelheaded is his talent, and being clumsy in a way that always helps him. In a way, he reminds me of Han Solo. He’s an everyday man and a rough guy with a good heart, and even wins a girl (Kim Cattrall) while he’s at it. He is aided by an old Chinese man named Egg Shen, played by Victor Wong, an eccentric Chinese actor who had to appear in every 80s movie that had something to do with China.
The film is full of great shots and funny action sequences. The characterization of Jack, Wang and the others he collects around him gets wackier in the second half. The friendship between Jack and Wang never really feels genuine, unfortunately. Kurt Russell is clearly the star of the picture and he is here to chew the scenery. His buddy Wang gets demoted to being a side-kick. A token Chinese guy who is the white rabbit to lead Russell into Wonderland. Actor Dennis Dun never really got a career as flashy as Russell’s. However, Wang is the one with the knowledge and Russell just follows him being brash.
Big Trouble in Little China is surprisingly sarcastic in its storytelling. The buddy system between Wang and Jack is like a meta-variation of what it usually is, because Jack is the side-kick to Wang and lost in the story. Nothing is truly genuine about this film, but tongue-in-cheek. This was one of Carpenter’s least successful films at the box office and one reasons that is given for this is that Big Trouble was ahead of its time in its meta-approach to familiar tropes. While Carpenter may have been laughing while filming, the meta-humor may have gone over people’s heads. A similar thing happened with Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers a decade later.
It’s brilliant nonsense. I love it.