Big Trouble in Little China ★★★★★

This is the movie that made me love John Carpenter. I first watched it about 5 years ago and it was one of those “where have you been all my life?” kind of experiences. I instantly fell in love with this movie’s creative world-building, screwball comedy tone, and of course Kurt Russel’s epic performance as Jack Burton. He instantly became one of my favorite movie characters and this is in my opinion Kurt’s best performance. I love everything about this movie so much so that it’s hard for me to even explain why I love it. But simply put this is my favorite Carpenter movie.

The main thing I love about this movie is it’s just not like anything else. It’s an action/comedy/martial arts/fantasy film that has the most original protagonist I’ve ever seen in a movie. It really has everything. You’ve got awesome martial fights, magic, gods and demons, monsters... all in this loving, yet tongue-in-cheek homage to Kung fu B-movies. And somehow this movie was originally going to be a western. It’s hard enough to summarize even the genre of this movie, and it’s even harder to explain the plot. So I won’t here but’s about a guy helping his friend rescue his fiancé and get his truck back.

And I think the rest of this review is just gonna be me talking about Jack Burton, because his character is the most brilliant thing about this movie in my opinion. At first glance, Jack seems like this confident, cool all-American hero, in the tradition of John Wayne, but what sets Jack apart from the archetype he seems to fit is he’s not actually that badass or capable. He’s got some skills and street smarts, but he’s not your typical effective action hero. But what’s great about him is he still gets in there and does whatever he can to help out his friend despite him not being as skilled as the characters around him. And he also has his occasional impressive moments. The result is the character is heroic but in a very unconventional way which makes the movie unique and hilarious. 

The movie has a great supporting cast as well. James Hong as Lo Pan has to be one of the great comedic villain performances of all time. He’s just hilarious here and I feel he’s really underrated in general, (he’s great in his one scene in Blade Runner also so he’s in 2 of my favorite movies). Dennis Dun does a great job as Wang Chi, the Luke Skywalker to Jack’s Han. Dun brings a real endearing earnestness to the character as well as a great sense of fun. He just has the perfect energy for this movie and he can be really funny at times too. The other performance I love in this is Victor Wong as Egg Shen. He has such a great oddball mystic quality in this and does an impressive job lending weight to the wacky mythology of this universe. Every actor in this so clearly understands the style and tone of the film they’re in, and I always find it remarkable that Carpenter was able to convey that to them. It just feels like everyone involved in this movie  was totally in sync. 

This movie is fascinating to me within Carpenter’s filmography because most of his films have very simple premises with easy to understand protagonists. And this film has such a layered plot and main character and both of them are revealed so gradually. I often wonder how Carpenter even came up with this movie. I’ve listened to the audio commentary on the film and that didn’t really clarify where the idea originated from but I also don’t really care because this movie is wonderful and I love it.

This is also one of Carpenter’s funniest movies. There’s so many good jokes and gags in this and basically every line reading Kurt Russel gives is hysterical. The tone of this movie is really interesting as most of Carpenter’s early films are more cynical and dark and edgy and this movie is so light and fun. I feel like Starman was a bit of a transition because that movie was more gentle and optimistic, and more comedic as well. Big Trouble in Little China is definitely by far Carpenter’s least serious film. There’s no real drama or intensity anywhere in this. There’s not even really any emotional arc. It’s just purely enjoyable comedic adventure. 

I think what makes me love this so much is it just so clearly knows what it is. Carpenter has such a confident grasp of the tone and style of this movie that it’s just a joy to watch. It’s definitely a self-aware homage to this kind of B-movie genre flicks, but at the same time it feels so earnest and not overtly self-aware. And all the martial arts action is legitimately great too. I feel like just repeating myself at this point but it’s hard for me to talk about different aspects of this film because it’s just all intertwined for me.

This is one of my favorite movies, it’s the Carpenter film that I’ve watched the most times and I can really just watch it any time. I guess this movie is probably not for everyone as it’s kind of wacky and weird at times and as I mentioned the plot is kind of confusing, but I feel this is one of those movies that, if it works for you, you’ll love it. There really nothing like it.