Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

*. On the DVD commentary track for Big Trouble in Little China director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell (who are obviously having a lot of fun reminiscing about the good ol’ days) mention how the movie had great test screenings but tanked at the box office, in large part (they felt) because of a poor effort at advertising and then having to go head-to-head with Aliens. It took later audiences to discover Big Trouble on glorious VHS, which (I think) is where I first saw it.
*. But VHS felt and still feels right for it. It’s a movie packed with ’80s cheesiness that belongs on a cassette, like some old albums need to play on vinyl. VHS even fits perfectly with its Hollywood version of Chinatown, which is all studio sets dressed up like a strip-mall Chinese restaurant. It’s hard to think the fate of the world is at stake when your climax takes place in the Temple of the Neon Skull, which you get to by going down a corridor lined with fat Buddha statues.
*. Russell’s Jack Burton definitely belongs in the ’80s. He has hockey hair to go with his fetching ensemble: a wifebeater with some cheap print on it, faded jeans, and knee-high moccasins. And then as a kicker you get an actual theme song, “Big Trouble in Little China” by The Coupe De Villes (John Carpenter singing back-up), played over the closing credits. Whatever happened to theme songs?
*. I wouldn’t argue that this is a great movie, but it is a great little movie with buckets of charm and no interest in taking itself seriously. Russell is perfect as the tough-talking but sadly underperforming leading man. Or leading man who is really a sidekick, as the joke is that Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi is the more conventional hero. Jack Burton gets all the usual action-hero tag-lines, but he’s all talk. Except he does come through in a pinch and he is a hit with Kim Cattrall, who looks sensational here and plays very bright and funny coming off Porky’s and Police Academy. In contrast, Wang Chi’s love interest Miao Yin doesn’t even have any lines, at least that I can recall.
*. Throw in James Hong and Victor Wong as dueling good and evil sorcerers and you’ve got a great cast that knew just how to play this material. Carpenter keeps things moving — literally, he loves to have his characters run from scene to scene — and as an added bonus the fact that this is an ’80s flick means you get some fun practical effects instead of a lot of crappy CGI. Of course the Wild-Man orangutan looks ridiculous, but I’d still take him ahead of a digital demon any day.
*. So this is one of those movies where everything came together. Even the lipstick that Gracie smears all over Jack’s mouth was a happy accident that came up during filming. Sometimes things just work out, and aside from the box office that’s what happened here.
*. But of course, box office is what matters. Over the years there’s been a lot of talk about a remake or sequel, but so far fans have had to make do with a series of comics. And maybe that’s for the best. \what happened in the ’80s should stay in the ’80s. It’s better that way.

17 thoughts on “Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

  1. fragglerocking

    I got the VHS of this back in the eighties when my lad was a nipper, we watched it several times and knew all the words so it has great memories attached for me. Tried watching it with Phil one evening who’d never seen it and was appalled at its hokiness. Won’t be doing that again! I still love it.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I wonder how much of its charm comes from knowing it back in the day. I guess if you came to it cold it might not feel the same and just seem hokey. Still, it’s a fun family film.

  2. Bookstooge

    Haven’t all the remakes and reboots of the last 10-15years taught you anything? It almost never turns out good. And sequels? Well, that is such a delicate matter that hollywood just can’t seem to get it right. Ghost Busters: Afterlife appeared, seemed to do well and then has completely disappeared as far as I can tell.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yeah, Dwayne Johnson was rumored to be in play for the reboot/remake of this and I just can’t see it working. Be nice if Hollywood came up with some new ideas, but they don’t seem interested. But maybe something will come out of the implosion/black hole of the Disney meltdown. They’ll give up on just milking franchises past the point of death.

      1. Bookstooge

        Ahhh, gotcha. I was hoping Disneyworld had burned down or something. Oh well.
        When will they learn to give the people who pay to see their stuff what they want instead of what Disney wants? I just don’t understand. It would be like an icecream stand that won’t sell you icecream…

  3. Brian Wilson

    You need a “LOVE” button for this one. I loved it the first time I saw it in the 80s and still do. It’s cinematic comfort food. Thanks for the write up.

      1. Brian Wilson

        Just out of curiosity, have you done “Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension”? Because, in theory, it shares the same “universe” as “Big Trouble.” Aside from being made in the 80s that is.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I don’t think I’ve seen that since it came out! I should check if my library has it in. Probably not, but they’ve got some weird stuff.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      That is interesting. Didn’t know, or forgot, he did the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers remake.

      He was actually called in as a script doctor here because the original script was set in the Old West. Apparently it was pretty dreadful and what he did was a pretty complete re-write.


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