Reviews for the Easily Distracted:
Big Trouble in Little China

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Title: Big Trouble in Little China

Uh, Doesn't the New X-Men Movie Come Out This Week? If you're volunteering to watch my kids every time there's a scheduling conflict during a screening, send me your phone number. Otherwise, put a sock in it.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant to the Film: Five dark and stormy nights out of five.

Brief Plot Synopsis: American trucker attempts to prove his mettle against ancient Chinese sorcery, with mixed results.

Tagline: "Adventure doesn't come any bigger!"

Better Tagline: "Yes sir, the check is in the mail."

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: During a brief stopover in San Francisco's Chinatown, truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) becomes embroiled in: a) the kidnapping of his friend Wang Chi's (Dennis Dun) betrothed, b) a Chinese gang war, and c) the "darkest magic" of nigh-immortal sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong). His predicament is complicated by both the presence of buttinsky lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and Burton's own inflated opinion of his abilities.

"Critical" Analysis: Big Trouble in Little China opened 28 years ago to almost no fanfare, grossed an anemic $11 million (its budget was almost twice that) and marked the beginning of the end of director John Carpenter's career as a marquee filmmaker. In the years since, Carpenter has directed nine films, a few of which (Prince of Darkness, They Live, In the Mouth of Madness) have achieved cult status in spite of terrible critical reaction. Mostly he's been content to pick up a paycheck as others have remade his older classics.

Given that evidence, Big Trouble in Little China must be a colossal turd, right?

This is actually the furthest thing from the truth. But while yours truly considers BTiLC to be one of the finest movies of the 20th century, it was something of a strange fish, even in a year that saw the release of Howard the Duck, Vamp and that Star Trek movie with whales in it. Russell, still widely known as "the guy from all those '70s Disney movies," plays a blowhard-ier John Wayne in a (relatively) big-budget version of a Chinese martial arts movie, shot through with Howard Hawks-style screwball comedy dialogue. In retrospect, it's astounding 20th Century Fox released it in the first place.

And in reality, they almost didn't. Attempts at studio sabotage included challenging the casting of Russell and Cattrall, rushing Carpenter through the production (in order to beat the similarly themed The Golden Child to theaters), and finally forcing the insertion of Egg Shen's (Victor Wong) prologue scene to try and explain Jack Burton to audiences. In the end, they probably figured -- what with Aliens and The Fly set to come out that summer as well -- they had their bases covered.

I didn't see BTiLC in the theater, and I suspect it never played in my town (we did get Aliens and The Fly however, go figure). I remember renting the VHS with friends because "Kurt Russell + John Carpenter" had already yielded Escape From New York and The Thing, which we knew without fear of hyperbole to be two of the greatest movies of all time. Not having seen it initially on the big screen, I can't speak to what audiences found so off-putting, but I'll bet having an '80s action hero who was more Sylvester the Cat than Sylvester Stallone didn't help.

Consider the years 1985-87 and the movies therein: Cobra, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Top Gun, MIssing in Action 2, Predator, Lethal Weapon. Of those, only Commando took a somewhat humorous approach, and its protagonist was still a ridiculously efficient killing machine. Many Americans probably weren't ready for a protagonist who was actually a sidekick (Carpenter has acknowledged Wang Chi is the real hero of the film), never mind one wearing a Baja jacket and lace-up suede boots (popular with Krokus fans everywhere).

Even so, it's not uncommon to tell someone they don't "get it" if they're too ignorant to find something as hilariously amusing or incredibly deep as you do (see also any interaction between me and Goonies fans). And much as I hate to admit it, plenty of people didn't "get" BTiLCM. It's an eminently requotable film, but if you didn't fully appreciate exchanges like this in 1986:

Egg Shen: "It is black blood of the earth."
Jack Burton: "You mean oil?"
Egg Shen: "I mean black blood of the earth!"

Then you're probably not going to laugh at it now. It's scientifically proven* that the humor lobes in our brain are fully developed by the time we get into junior high, meaning you either grew up guffawing at a duck dressed as Robin Hood repeatedly slamming into a tree, or you didn't.

I suspect many of those reviewing Big Trouble in Little China during its initial run were unprepared for a smirking buffoon for a lead, or the over-the-top kung fu fighting, which is much more commonplace now. Newcomers to the movie even draw comparisons between Jack Burton and Bruce Campbell's Ash (from the Evil Dead films). I can see the similarities, except a) Burton is smart, and b) Ash could easily kick the crap out of Jack Burton.

I could go on, but that kind of nerdy navel-gazing is why everyone already hates J.J. Abrams's Star Wars sequel. Myself, I've always seen Jack Burton as a stand-in for America, or at least how America viewed itself during a newly confident post-Vietnam era: blustering, overconfident, yet somehow still self-aware enough to avoid what would probably be a hurtful relationship with Gracie Law. May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.

* By noted phrenologists

Big Trouble in Little China is not in theaters (I caught it last week at the Alamo Drafthouse). But it is available on DVD and Blu-ray. Pick it up and prepare to experience some very unreasonable things.

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