“You know what Jack Burton always says?”
“Me. Jack Burton. Jack Burton always says… ahh, what the hell.”
Kurt Russell’s played many roles throughout the years – from the Computer in Tennis Shoes to Snake Plissken to Colonel O’Neill in the original Stargate. But in many ways my favorite is his two-fisted everyman trucker, Jack Burton, who gets into a pulp-fiction adventure way over his head… all because he wins a bet and agrees to do a favor for a friend on the way to collect.
Big Trouble in Little China is a wonderful send-up and homage to the great pulp adventures of early 20th century, with some modern sensibilities thrown in just to mix things up a bit. It has the overly-dramatic speeches, the poses, the pulp-fiction piling of cliffhanger upon cliffhanger. It takes the old Yellow Peril imagery and works it for all its worth, giving us the immortal villain Lo Pan (played with scenery-chewing relish by the magnificent James Hong), working ancient Chinese sorcery in a hidden enclave under the streets of San Francisco – and also doing business as the crippled businessman David Lo Pan. If he can undo a curse placed upon him centuries ago, he will be able to use his immense sorcerous powers to “rule the universe from beyond the grave!”. And now the very thing he needs to break the curse has appeared: a girl with pure green eyes…
Against him is a quirky band of would-be heroes – Burton, who really just wants to collect his money and, after his first run in with Lo Pan and his gang, to get his truck back, Gracie Law (Kim Catrall), the stereotype Girl Reporter Out for the Scoop, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) who’s trying to rescue his fiancee from Lo Pan’s sinister schemes, and tour-bus driver and part-time wizard Egg Shen (Victor Wong), who has a sacred mission to stop Lo Pan.
This is a movie that succeeds, to a great extent, for the same reason that Galaxy Quest did: it manages to provide comedy without condescension, and takes itself seriously within its universe, even as that universe appears ridiculous to us from the outside. The seriousness is set from the beginning, with Egg Shen being interviewed by a lawyer; Shen vehemently tells him to leave Burton alone, for the services he’s done, and when the lawyer expresses severe doubts about the reality of what Shen’s talking about… Egg Shen produces lightning between his hands. “That? That was nothing. But that’s how it always begins. Very small….”
It also draws upon the tropes of every adventure movie ever made, and then turns them upside down. Perhaps the most obvious of these is Jack Burton himself. While Burton is not completely incompetent, he is clearly utterly out of his depth in this cosmic war,with his major asset being dogged determination and master-level wisecrackery. He thinks he’s the real hero of the story, but an outside observer might think that he’s really just the sidekick to Wang Chi, who is more serious, more competent, more focused, and more aware of things than Jack; the one battle in the warehouse emphasizes this, when Jack loses his weapon early on, and by the time he manages to recover it and make it ready, Wang’s taken down the entirety of a roomful of thugs by himself.
At the same time, he isn’t actually an idiot hero, and shows some ability to pull off quick cons and disguises… and in the end, does defeat Lo Pan, though not exactly the way he intended.
The dialogue of the characters is a huge part of the humor; they deliver the breathlessly infodumpy, purple-prose narratives straight out of the worst penny-dreadfuls with straight faces and convincing emotion, in the midst of the most ludicrous situations; I particularly loved Gracie’s introduction, with her doing an As You Know Jack speech that tells us all about her, and the Mysterious David Lo Pan, and all the danger they’ll be getting in, with occasional asides. Wang lets us know what kind of dialogue we’re in for earlier, with his overly-long speeches to Jack while they’re on their way to the airport to pick up his fiancee.
Big Trouble in Little China was also many people’s first introduction to wire-fu and some of the tropes of Chinese magic/Hong Kong Action flicks, with the grand finale involving in-air swordfights, symbolic magical duels, and the occasional machine gun. A serious introduction to a wider audience wouldn’t happen until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon burst onto the scene. It inspired me enough so that in the original version of “Photo Finish” (the werewolf section of Digital Knight) there was a scene, now deleted, in which Jason Wood encounters a trucker named Jack Burton in… unusual circumstances.
This is one of the relatively few movies to get me to both laugh and cheer even the third or fourth time I’ve seen it. It’s completely un-self-conscious fun. If you’ve never seen it, you really should!