Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Genre: Action Comedy and Fantasy Running Time: 1 hr. 39 min.

Release Date: July 2nd, 1986 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: John Carpenter Actors: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Donald Li




our bus driver Egg Shen (Victor Wong) in San Francisco’s Chinatown consults with an attorney to defend against a slew of upcoming charges. After all, half a city block was engulfed in green flames, and the prosecutors want answers. Of course, the answers are steeped in Chinese black magic and sorcery (which Shen absolutely believes in) and the unknown whereabouts of savior Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) – a man who might be more legend than reality.

Circling back to the beginning, Jack is the driver of the “Pork Chop Express” Freightliner, which stops by Chinatown so that he can gamble with pal and restauranteur Wang (Dennis Dun). After securing a hefty sum of cash, Wang convinces Jack to accompany him to the airport to pick up Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), a green-eyed girl from Peking whom Wang is supposed to marry. But just as she arrives, she’s kidnapped by a notorious Chinatown gang called the Lords of Death, forcing Jack and Wang to give chase. After tailing the hoodlums into a narrow alley, the two stumble into a longstanding turf war (a Chinese standoff), where a funeral procession is attacked by cleaver-wielding thugs. “These guys are animals!”

Thrust into the middle of a centuries-old supernatural conflict, the unwitting combatants are rapidly caught up in scenarios that don’t make much sense. From a puff of emerald smoke comes a somersaulting wizard, to join forces with two other sorcerers, descending from the clouds and playing with lightning bolts; two factions of martial artists scrap right in front of Jack’s parked truck; and pasty-faced villain Lo Pan (James Hong) materializes at all the most inopportune times to wreak havoc. Later, as if by utter necessity, Wang’s friend Eddie (Donald Li) shows up to start randomly explaining things. And he’s joined by Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), a lawyer from the neighborhood, and her reporter friend Marge (Kate Burton), who each seem to also know far too much about the situation. “Who the hell are you anyway?”

The film’s ideas are thrown at the audience so rapidly and with such fantastical nonsense that it’s difficult to sort it all out. Strangely, however, the pervasive sense of humorous weirdness and the escalating predicaments make everything thoroughly entertaining. It’s mostly inexplicable, with events unfolding spontaneously, but the pacing is so swift that there’s never a moment to be bored. And adding to the extemporaneous happenings are a continual onslaught of new names and locations that are always followed by an extra sentence to describe what they are; as each successive scene plays out, more questions are created, while answers are perpetually withheld.

“Are you crazy? Is that your problem?” With spirit-medium powers, atomized bones, intermittent formlessness, and a temporary entombing in a withered old body (a horrible curse), Lo Pan is dually evil and goofy. His character sums up the dichotomy of the entire picture, as amusing fight choreography rotates between thrills and laughs, and dialogue begins sincerely but then wanders into the inane. Director John Carpenter seems to be creating his own version of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, especially as the protagonists alternately descend and ascend (sometimes literally) into the wild Chinese legends that fuel ceaseless magical misadventures.

Hilariously, Jack is as impatient about the vivid voodoo and wordy commentary as the audience certainly will be, insisting that the participants get straight to the combat – for which he’s not cut out, as if a hopelessly inept, accidental hero. Correspondingly, for every genuine martial arts feat or gruesome monstrosity, there’s a sequence of riotous slapstick to counter the brief seriousness. This is the kind of movie wherein it’s hard to know if the acting and storytelling are just bad or if the B-movie campiness is entirely intentional. Fortunately, by the end of all the magic and myths and tongue-in-cheek absurdities, “Big Trouble in Little China” is far funnier than it is plainly stupid.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10