There have been many films about a Caucasian outsider who immerses himself in Asian culture and emerges the triumphant (and highly unlikely) hero. In 1985, Michael Cimino’s “Year of the Dragon” pitted Mickey Rourke in the cop-who-solves-the-Chinese-war role, while Ridley Scott’s 1989 “Black Rain” did the same for Michael Douglas but in Japan. There was also “The Hunted” from 1995, in which Christopher Lambert learns how to be a ninja in an absurdly short amount of time (the length of a montage, actually). There’s also “The Last Samurai,” Edward Zwick’s 2003 “Dances With Wolves” answer to this type of movie. Most of these movies are well intentioned, though some of them are condescending and insulting. Good thing Michael Douglas showed up in Tokyo, exuded his brash American bravado and single handedly apprehended a Yakuza killer. You’re welcome, Japan. USA! USA!
One of the many great things about John Carpenter’s wonderful “Big Trouble in Little China” is that its making fun of this type of movie. Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton is a courageous but dopey truck driver who becomes the leader in a rescue mission. Burton isn’t really trying to save or enlighten anyone but is only helping out because he wants his truck back. There’s nothing self righteous or humble about his intentions and, despite those around him referring to him as a “great hero,” Burton is hardly that. This could have been set in an Amish community or SOHO New York or Happy Valley Maui and the result would likely have been the same: Jack Burton is an out-of-place goofball who will help a worthy cause, but only if it means getting back to his big rig and yakking into his CB radio.
The movie exudes the exotic world of Chinese mysticism and hidden lairs but isn’t an exploitation film. It’s barely even about Burton, who seems like the least helpful leading man in cinema. The genuinely clever, possibly brilliant thing about the film is that it’s a comedy about how mostly unhelpful Burton is. It’s also a showcase for the charming Dennis Dun, whose Wang Chi is the real star. That isn’t to say that Russell isn’t sensational or that his character is irritating. In fact, Russell is so funny in this, conveying the embodiment of a very American alpha male, he shines even when he’s stopping to tie his shoe during a fight scene. Burton is brave but a step behind everyone at all times, making for a unique parody of an Indiana Jones-type. Imagine “Temple of Doom” except with Short Round as the actual hero and you’d have this movie.
The ensemble here is strong, with special mention going to character actors Victor Wong, very funny as the Merlin-like Egg Shen and a hysterically funny and very creepy James Hong, exceptional as the evil Lo Pan. Kim Cattrall’s performance is odd and perhaps a bit out of step with the movie’s tone (she seems to be acting in a children’s film, while everyone else is aware that this is a farce).
Carpenter’s ahead-of-its-time, one-of-a-kind blend of action, horror, martial arts, fantasy and satire was strange and too smart for the room in 1986. Now, it offers the kind of hip mix of clever genre deconstruction and sensational special effects that movies like “Ghostbusters,” “An American Werewolf in London,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai,” “John Dies at the End” and “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” all possess.
Sandwiched between his acclaimed, respectable and polished “Starman” and his cheap, grimy and ambitious “Prince of Darkness,” Carpenter’s wacky, exciting and quite magical cult classic deserves every bit of fan devotion its earned in thirty years. Movies like this are a miracle when they’re made independently; this was made with a large budget and released by a major studio. Sure, they buried it and didn’t get it but audiences certainly did. The ambidexterity of tones, types of jokes and action here demonstrate how Carpenter, as always, is a versatile and valuable American filmmaker. Carpenter, as well as Jack Burton, can attest that it’s all in the reflexes.