Cult Classics: Big Trouble in Little China

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“You know what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like this?”
“Who?”
“Jack Burton. Me!”

Jack Burton and his truck, The Pork Chop Express, barrel into San Francisco’s Chinatown with a delivery while he gives a monologue over the CB airwaves that summarizes his character and general attitude: “When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: “Have ya paid your dues, Jack?” “Yessir, the check is in the mail.”

It’s wild hyperbole that sounds just right coming out of Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), a tough-talking rough and ready macho man who passes the rainy night gambling in a back alley. When day comes, however, his friend Wang Shi begs Jack to give him another chance to win his money back. Betting all or nothing, Wang says he can cut a glass bottle in half with a hatchet; he doesn’t and the bottle flies towards Jack, who catches it in his hand and quips, “It’s all in the reflexes.”

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Still demanding Wang pay him the bet, instead he gives Wang a lift to the airport to pick up his fiancee Miao Yin, who has green eyes. Meanwhile, Burton meets Gracie Law (Kim Cattrell), a lawyer he flirts with and is there to meet a woman at the airport to guarantee her safety. But the Chinese gang The Lords of Death step in and kidnap Miao. Jack and Wang give chase but lose them. Heading back to Chinatown, Wang directs Jack down an  alleyway that seems to bring them into a secret dimension hidden within Chinatown–one where rival martial arts gangs fight each other in the street and magical warriors appear out of thin air–including Lo Pan, the wildly powerful and dangerous Big Bad of the film.

They duck into a basement to hide and before Burton can get any answers as to what the hell’s going on, he and Wang go to Wang’s family restaurant where Burton finds out the Lords of Death have taken his truck. Gracie Law shows up and informs them Miao Yin is going to be sold off that night. Jack tries to help rescue her but Lo Pan’s goons break into the brothel and abduct Miao, riding the lightning into the sky to escape.

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Jack Burton says he feels like an outsider here, and he is: the world of Big Trouble in Little China is far different from anything Jack Burton has ever encountered. From here, Jack is plunged into a wild world of mystical sorcery and general insanity. Not that this ever breaks Jack Burton’s swagger, as he keeps his sarcastic mouth running no matter what he finds himself up against.

Because ultimately, Jack Burton is the audience surrogate, a tough guy who nonetheless is completely out of his element and often bewildered as to what’s going on. Which is good, since Burton is actually the comedic sidekick to Wang, who does many of the heroic deeds in the film while Jack either screws up or else succeeds by accident. But he’s the protagonist because we’re watching the film through his eyes. While he talks the talk and even can walk the walk, he’s way out of his comfort zone. Instead, all Jack can do is smirk, throw off one-liners, and act appropriately bewildered as to the unreal things he’s witnessing. Perhaps in a standard action-adventure movie, Burton would be a John McClane-type of snarky hero but in Big Trouble in Little China he just wants his truck back.

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As the film develops, Jack, Wang, and Egg Shen–an old mystic who has sorcery powers of his own–along with his small army enter Lo Pan’s lair to save both Miao and Gracie from Lo Pan’s grasp, who plans on using them so he can once again return to a vital corporeal form. It’s wonderfully nuts and incredibly well done.

There is much to recommend in this movie, which is a unique comedy-action adventure-martial arts hybrid directed by John Carpenter and with a story by previous cult classic scribe and director W.D. Richter‘s previous cult classic scribe and director W.D. Richter. Striking a fantastic balance between the supernatural and the comedic, between often-bizarre elements and goofy shenanigans, and grounded by maybe Kurt Russell’s best performance, Big Trouble in Little China is a consistently entertaining film.

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Too bad audiences and critics at the time didn’t think so: clobbered by a little film called Aliens on its opening weekend and fair-to-negative reviews by critics, BTiLC eluded audiences in 1986 and made Carpenter walk away from studio work for years. Which is unfortunate since it’s probably his best film.

Thanks to the constantly nerdy culture that foment the creation of a cult around a movie, Big Trouble soon found its audience in the secondary market of home video and cable TV. It’s an endlessly quotable film, not only from Jack Burton (who seems to be a meme machine thirty years before such a concept existed) but many other characters. In fact, here are some memes that this film has spawned in the internet age:

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This film has inspired a lot of people over the years: the band Man Man named their second studio album Six Demon Bag from Egg Shen’s eponymous weapon; Die Antrwoord’s song “We Have Candy” quotes some of Burton’s lines from the film; and video game characters have been inspired by the bad guys of the film. In general, one could view the sort of cocky no-nothing know-it-all hero types that have become popular in recent comedy-action films as directly inspired by Jack Burton, and even the comedic tone now common in many modern action films seemed to have taken a direct inspiration from the tone of Big Trouble in Little China.

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With fantastic action sequences, effects that hold up incredibly well, great comedy, and stellar action sequences, Big Trouble in Little China is the kind of action-adventure film you can surprisingly watch with the whole family but also enjoy as an adult. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but if you’ve never seen this film before, please do: it’s currently available on Netflix. Order some Chinese food, grab a 6-pack, and enjoy John Carpenter’s under-sung masterpiece. After all, “Just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”

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Categories: culture, film

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