Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

 

Highlights

  • Fantasy/Martial Arts Comedy film Directed by John Carpenter
  • Starring Kurt RussellKim CattrallDennis Dun and James Hong
  • Box Office failure, grossing just over $11m in North America
  • Sequel starring Dwayne Johnson due in 2021

Big Trouble in Little China (also known as John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China) is a 1986 American fantasy martial arts comedy film directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt RussellKim Cattrall, Dennis Dun and James Hong. The film tells the story of Jack Burton, who helps his friend Wang Chi rescue Wang’s green-eyed fiancee from bandits in San Francisco’s Chinatown. They go into the mysterious underworld beneath Chinatown, where they face an ancient sorcerer named David Lo Pan, who requires a woman with green eyes to marry him in order to release him from a centuries-old curse.

Although the original screenplay by first-time screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein was envisioned as a Western set in the 1880s, screenwriter W. D. Richter was hired to rewrite the script extensively and modernize it. The studio hired Carpenter to direct the film and rushed Big Trouble in Little China into production so that it would be released before a similarly themed Eddie Murphy film, The Golden Child, which was slated to come out around the same time. The project fulfilled Carpenter’s long-standing desire to make a martial arts film.

The film was a commercial failure, grossing $11.1 million in North America, below its estimated $19 to $25 million budget. It received mixed reviews that left Carpenter disillusioned with Hollywood and influenced his decision to return to independent film making. It has since become a cult classic and has a 79% average rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a steady audience on home video.

Big-talking rough-and-tumble truck driver Jack Burton wins a bet with his restaurant owner friend Wang Chi. To make sure he follows through on payment, Jack accompanies him to the airport to pick up Wang’s Chinese fiancée Miao Yin. A Chinese street gang, the Lords of Death, tries to kidnap another Chinese girl at the airport, who is being met by her friend Gracie Law, intending to sell her as a sex slave. After Jack intervenes, they take Miao Yin instead.

Jack and Wang track the Lords of Death to the back alleys of Chinatown, where they find a funeral procession that quickly erupts into a battle between the Chang Sing and Wing Kong, two ancient Chinese societies. When “The Three Storms” – Thunder, Rain, and Lightning, mighty warriors with weather-themed powers – appear, slaughtering the Chang Sing, Jack attempts to gun his big-rig through the crowd, but runs over David Lo Pan, a decrepit man directing the Three Storms. Horrified, Jack exits his truck, but finds Lo Pan unfazed and glowing with magic. Wang hurriedly guides Jack through the alleys; the two escape the carnage and mayhem, but Jack’s truck is stolen.

Wang takes Jack to his restaurant, where they meet with Gracie, her journalist friend Margo, Wang’s friend Eddie Lee, and magician Egg Shen, a local authority on mysticism and Lo Pan. They try to explain to an incredulous Jack (who only wants his truck back) the ancient knowledge and sorcery the Chinese brought with them to America. The group devises a plan to infiltrate a brothel, where they believe Miao Yin is held. They break in with some difficulty, but are interrupted by the Storms tearing off the ceiling and making off with Miao Yin, taking her to their master Lo Pan. Jack and Wang track down the front business used by Lo Pan and impersonate electricians to gain access, but are quickly subdued by Rain. After being tied up and beaten by Thunder, the two meet Lo Pan – however, he now appears as a crippled old man.

Wang tells Jack that Lo Pan needs a special green-eyed girl to break an ancient curse, and he intends to sacrifice Miao Yin. Centuries ago, Lo Pan, a great warrior and even greater wizard, was defeated in battle by the first sovereign emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The Emperor cursed Lo Pan with incorporeality; although Lo Pan can be temporarily granted a decrepit body by supplication to the gods, he must marry a woman with green eyes to appease Ching Dai, the God of the East, and sacrifice her to satisfy the Emperor. When Jack and Wang’s friends attempt to save them, they are also captured. After getting the drop on Thunder, Jack, Wang, and Eddie escape and free many women kept in holding cells in the process. During the escape, a horrible orangutan-like monster recaptures Gracie before she escapes. Lo Pan notes that Gracie has green eyes, too, and decides to sacrifice Gracie while making Miao Yin his unwilling wife.

Wang and Jack regroup with the Chang Sing and Egg Shen, and as a group they enter a cavern to return to Lo Pan’s headquarters. Egg pours each of the group a potent potion that Jack says makes him feel “kind of invincible”. The group interrupts the wedding ceremony, which breaks out into a battle. Wang kills Rain in a sword duel, while Jack and Gracie chase the newly-alive Lo Pan. Wang joins them, and just when all seems lost, Jack kills Lo Pan with a skillful knife throw. Thunder – who had been distracted with Wang – reappears, and, enraged at finding Lo Pan dead, explodes. Jack, Wang, Gracie, and Miao Yin are cornered by Lightning in a corridor, who triggers a collapse with his powers. Egg rescues them with a rope and kills Lightning by dropping a stone Buddha statue on him when he tries to follow. After finding Jack’s truck and dealing with the remaining Wing Kong guards, the group busts out and escapes back to Wang’s restaurant.

The group celebrates their victory in the restaurant with the rescued women; Wang and Miao prepare to marry, while Eddie pairs with Margo. Egg sets off on a long-due vacation – Jack suggests his homeland, but Egg says that China is in the heart. Though attracted to Gracie, Jack turns down an offer to stay and begins trucking again, not wanting to be tied down. Unbeknownst to him, the orangutan-like monster survived the battle in the labyrinth and has stowed away on his truck.

Cast

  • Kurt Russell as Jack Burton, a truck driver who carries an army knife with him.
  • Kim Cattrall as Gracie Law, a lawyer who is Jack’s love interest.
  • Dennis Dun as Wang Chi, Jack’s best friend whose girlfriend is stolen from by Lo Pan.
  • James Hong as David Lo Pan, an underground emperor who lost a bet to an unknown person and was cursed, making him a ghost. He needs green eyed girls to break the curse.
  • Victor Wong as Egg Shen, a retired wizard and bus driver who has spellcasting powers.
  • Kate Burton as Margo Litzenberger, a reporter who briefly helps the team find Miao Yin.
  • Donald Li as Eddie Lee, a successful businessman and Wang’s friend who helps them rescue Gracie.
  • Carter Wong as Thunder, one of the 3 masters, who can control thunder.
  • Peter Kwong as Rain, the second of the 3 masters who can control rain.
  • James Pax as Lightning, the third of the 3 masters who can control lightning.
  • Suzee Pai as Miao Yin, a girl who was kidnapped by Lo Pan.
  • Chao-Li Chi as Uncle Chu.
  • Jeff Imada as Needles

Al Leong, Gerald Okamura and Nathan Jung appears as Wing Kong hatchet men. Lia Chang and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa have minor roles as Wing Kong members. Frank Ho and James Lew appear as Chang Sing warriors.

Carpenter was not entirely satisfied with Boss Film Studios, the company in charge of the film’s visual effects. According to the director, they took on more projects than they could handle and some effects for the film had to be cut down. Richard Edlund, head of Boss Film Studios, said that there were no difficulties with the company’s workload and that Big Trouble was probably its favorite film at the time, with the exception of Ghostbusters.

The effects budget for the film was just under $2 million, which Edlund said was barely adequate. One of the more difficult effects was the floating eyeball, a spy for Lo-Pan. It was powered by several puppeteers and dozens of cables to control its facial expressions. It was shot with a special matting system specially designed for it.

John Carpenter received a Saturn Award Best Music nomination for this film. With the soundtrack, Carpenter wanted to avoid the usual clichés as he found that “other scores for American movies about Chinese characters are basically rinky tink, chop suey music. I didn’t want that for Big Trouble“. Carpenter instead opted for his trademark synthesizer score mixed with rock ‘n’ roll music.

Opening in 1,053 theaters on July 2, 1986Big Trouble in Little China grossed $2.7 million in its opening weekend and went on to gross $11.1 million in North America, well below its estimated budget of $19–25 million. The film was released in the midst of the hype for James Cameron‘s blockbuster Aliens, which was released sixteen days after. On the DVD commentary for Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter and Russell discuss this among possible reasons for the film’s disappointing box office gross.

A tie-in video game of the same name was published in 1986 by Electric Dreams Software for the ZX SpectrumCommodore 64 and Amstrad CPC. Critical reception was mixed.

The film’s portrayal of the lightning sorcerer/demigod character has been occasionally described as an inspiration for the character of Raiden from Mortal Kombat, introducing the archetype of a straw hat–wearing monk able to control lightning with his hands to Western audiences. (In traditional Chinese and Japanese culture, the lightning god is represented more akin to a traditional Asian demon.) Additionally, the character David Lo Pan has been credited as the original inspiration for the soul-stealing Mortal Kombat villain Shang Tsung.

The twenty-third episode of the second season of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, called “A Chinatown Ghost Story”, uses concepts from the film, but renames the antagonist Lo Pan to Ho Chan, and the Storm figure Rain is replaced by Wind. In addition, James Hong (Lo Pan) reprises his Little China performance as the principal villain character.

The song “We Have Candy” by the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord features lead singer Ninja reciting some of Jack Burton’s dialogue from the film.

A 2012 parody music video of the song “Gangnam Style” was entitled Lo Pan Style and featured the storyline and characters from the movie, including a cameo by James Hong.

New Zealand director Taika Waititi cited the film as an influence on Thor: Ragnarok (2017).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *