Plot: Tough-talking, wisecracking truck driver Jack Burton's (Russell) hum-drum life on the road takes a sudden supernatural tailspin when his best friend's fiancee is kidnapped. Speeding to the rescue, Jack finds himself deep beneath San Francisco's Chinatown, in a murky, creature-filled world ruled by Lo Pan (Wong), a 2000-year-old magician who mercilessly presides over an empire of spirits.
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After appearing in both Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing (1982), it’s no surprise that when director John Carpenter called on Kurt Russell again for Big Trouble in Little China, he readily agreed. But was this third collaboration the weakest of the bunch?
In Escape from New York (1981) (and to a lesser extent, The Thing (1982)), Kurt played the hero with all the right moves. As Snake Plissken, he was the gritty hero who got the job done – a true action hero. In Big Trouble in Little China, however, he talks the same talk, but viewers soon come to realize it’s all bluster, as he’s shown up by the non-assuming form of Dennis Dun and his co-horts time and again. Kurt’s the macho guy, but when it comes to heroism, he has more heart than talent in Big Trouble in Little China – and it’s incredibly refreshing to see him play a character that spoofs Snake so well.
He shares screen time with co-star Dennis Dun, a relative unknown. While Dennis is a bit rough around the edges acting-wise (his earnest feelings are a bit too plain on his face, as if he’s trying a bit too hard to make them known), director Carpenter does a good job of making him look good in quite a few action sequences. He won’t endear himself to the audience like Kurt is so easily able to do, no matter how hard he tries, but he’s not a total disappointment either.
Kim Cattrall, long before her Sex and the City (TV) days, pops up as Kurt’s love interest, Gracie Law. She seems to realize early on the film is playing out as sort of a tongue-in-cheek homage to cheesy action flicks, and manages to walk her character down that fine line between action comedy and utter ridiculousness.
Another memorable performance is handed in by Victor Wong, whose face is much more familiar than the name associated with it. He does a great job playing Egg Shen, a fun – and crazily eccentric – character that manages to provide as many laughs as Kurt’s bumbling action attempts. He manages to make the character oddly comical while at the same time not reducing him to a “Mr. Magoo” like buffoon.
The special effects vary from decent to oddly awful – and some that just seem to be there just because there was money left over to spend on making them. This odd mix produces some decent sequences (pretty much anything with the Lightning Fury), to some ridiculous (a man who can inflate himself to the point of bursting) and some odd items that don’t seem to really fit into the film (why is there an orangutan relative, but with a snout full of fangs, roaming around the halls?). It’s an odd mix, helping the special effects provide as many groans as they do thrills.
Director John Carpenter obviously has a quirky sense of humor, and never is it more noticeable than in Big Trouble in Little China. Aside from the odd supernatural creature (or three) wandering around aimlessly, he manages to tell the story while providing a lot of quirky comical moments on the way. Yet, unlike many silly comedies these days, the comical moments help to define the characters as much as – if not more so – than the action sequences.
For example, Kurt Russell is used to punching his way through guys in hand-to-hand combat, so he’s feeling pretty content when he gets the best of a guy in a fist fight. He then turns around, and sees his pal (Dun) has left 6 or 7 combatants unconscious in the meantime. Or when Kurt’s exuberance gets the best of him and he fires his gun up in the air (usually the signal for the fighting to begin in action flicks) – and collapses the ceiling above him, leaving him out of most of the actual battle. Or, in a climactic battle sequence between two wizards, their magic collides between them to reveal a scene of two warriors battling it out…then pans to the villain, Lo Pan, to see him giggling while using his fingers to operate what seems to be an invisible game controller.
It’s moments like these that make Big Trouble in Little China so memorable. It’s a quirky blend of humor, action, and science fiction that should keep most viewers entertained. Sure, it’s not perfect (they should have left out the odd supernatural creatures and saved the special effects budget for things like the inflating guy), but it’s soft spoofing of action films – especially Kurt’s good-natured spoofing of himself – definitely make Big Trouble in Little China just plain fun to watch.