John Carpenter is one of the rarest filmmakers still living. He continues to operate on the fringes of Hollywood for almost 50 years. While other directors would’ve eventually took the bigger projects, agreed to studio notes and suggested casting decisions to make a few blockbusters and maybe an Oscar winner or two, that’s not the case with him.
Despite all of his movies as a director, only one (Starman) has ever been nominated for an Oscar, which went to Jeff Bridges. Carpenter only directed that movie because he was so afraid his career would falter after the initial failure of The Thing. In Hollywood, you’re only as successful as your previous project.
Starman made about $28 million over its $24 million budget, but it was a critics darling. And the Oscar nomination helps. So, the offers came. At first, Carpenter was offered The Golden Child with Eddie Murphy for Paramount Pictures. But he turned it down. Then, there was Big Trouble in Little China for 20th Century Fox.
Hollywood is an incestuous town and many story elements and plots are used in other movies. James Cameron had been trying to sell a script called The Mission in the early 1980s that was later used in Rambo: First Blood Part II. At the same time, the first two Mission in Action movies were made by the Cannon Group with similar plots.
So, two movies with ancient Chinese mysticism were being released in 1986 by two major studios. 20th Century Fox, which had bought a turn of the century western written by two young screenwriters, Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein but heavily re-written by W.D. Richter. It’s been theorized that Richter used some elements for the failed Buckaroo Banzai sequel in this.
Carpenter was hired mostly for his ways of being able to work on and film a movie at a faster pace. He was only given 10 weeks of pre-production and many scenes had to be either cut or condensed for budgetary reasons or filmed in only one take or using cheap tricks.
The movie does have a change of pace from other action of the era, mainly in how the characters are portrayed. Despite being the top-billed star, Kurt Russell is playing truck driver Jack Burton, but he isn’t the hero. He’s the comic-relief sidekick. The romantic hero of the movie is Wang Chi, played by Dennis Dun. And the best part is Russell knows he’s playing the sidekick and does it accordingly.
I’m not sure many other big named stars of the era would’ve even dared to take on such a role. It helps that Russell has played these types of characters before, most notably in Used Cars as a sleazy used car salesman. He also appeared in numerous Disney movies in his youth. Jack Burton isn’t a tough guy, but a person who thinks he’s a tough guy. But he’s not the type who will pick a fight.
The plot involves Jack arriving in San Francisco to make a delivery. He plays some betting games with his friends, one of them Wang, who loses money. Wang has been saving up money operating a restaurant with his uncle in hopes of having his girlfriend, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) to come to America so they can be married. Later that day, he’s supposed to pick her up from the airport.
So, Jack takes Wang go to the airport. There, they run into the Lords of Death, a Chinese street gang, who kidnap Miao Yin, because she has green eyes. They also meet Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), a lawyer who is trying to expose the sex trafficking trade involving Chinese and other southeast Asian immigrants. She’s supposed to be a young woman.
Jack and Wang follow the Lords of Death to Chinatown only to find themselves in a funeral procession that erupts in a battle between the Chang Sing and the Wink Kong, two ancient Chinese warrior societies. And to make matters worse, the Three Storms consisting of Rain (Peter Kwong), Thunder (Carter Wong) and Lightning (James Pax) show up. They have supernatural powers connected to the weather.
Jack and Wang try to escape but they discover David Lo Pan (James Wong), an ancient Chinese sorcerer is also there. They steal Jack’s truck but Wang and Jack make it out.
Later, with help from Gracie and Eddie Lee (Donald Li), a friend of Wang’s, they go to the White Tiger where Jack tries play a bumbling businessman in town looking to hire a prostitute. But the Storms show up and kidnap Miao Yin, who is there.
It turns out that Lo Pan needs Miao Yin to be his bride because of her green eyes. This is the only way he can turn back into his human form. This is the result of an curse by Emperor Qin Shi Huang.
Another attempt to rescue Miao Yin results in Gracie also being kidnapped by a hairy monster. Gracie also has green eyes, so Wang and Jack team with the Chang Sing and Egg Shen (Victor Wong) a magician who also has a tour bus business to stop Lo Pan and the Storms and rescue Miao Yin and Gracie.
It’s a complicated plot with elements of martial arts, horror, fantasy, and action with an overall comic tone to it. So, it was very hard for audiences in 1986 to grasp what they were watching. I’ve heard many people say they like the Buckaroo Banzai movie. I’m not one of them. But I think both movies work along the same level. It’s hard to tell someone in a few words what they’re about.
And that might be why it failed at the box office. Carpenter said the movie was overshadowed by the hype surrounding Aliens as Fox did more marketing for that. Big Trouble only made about $11 million. Carpenter would go on to make his other movies, Prince of Darkness and They Live, independently. He also sold off the rest of his rights to the Halloween characters.
Thankfully, Big Trouble found its audience on home video and especially on cable TV. It was a hard movie for many people to like especially if they’re expecting Rambo. The film poster for the movie had Russell holding a Tech 9 firearm, wearing a sleeveless muscle shirt with a goofy smile on his face. It looked formulaic of all other action movies of the 1980s so people were probably surprised to realize that it’s an martial arts action comedy.
However, the Blu-ray DVD cover gave more details to other characters in the movie, such as Lo Pan, the Storms and other elements.
Who knows what audiences were expecting? Russell’s role as Jack is a great one. He’s a John Wayne parody of a man who only kills the bad guys by dumb luck.
When the huge battle between the Chang Sing and Lo Pan and his minions takes off, Jack fires his gun up in the air, knocking loose pieces of the rock ceiling that fall on his head and knock him out. He later kills a guard by accident thanks to a knife that’s in his boot as he’s able to stab the guard but has a difficult time getting the dead weight off him.
One thing I’ve noticed about the showdown between Jack and Lo Pan is how it’s foreshadowed earlier in the movie. When Jack and Wang are arguing about the money, Wang bets he can use a machete to slice a glass bottle in half. When it doesn’t work, the bottle flies up toward Jack who quickly catches it with good reflexes.
Later, he is able to defeat Lo Pan who throws a knife at him, that he catches and throws back at Lo Pan, stabbing him in the head. He then tries to pass it off macho by telling Gracie, “It’s all in the reflexes.”
Through all this, Wang is the superior fighter. He battles both Rain and Thunder. He also gets the girl in the end.
Originally, Carpenter wanted Jackie Chan for this role, but Chan reportedly turned it down. Dun is a far better actor for the role. He had previously appeared in Year of the Dragon the year before. The mid-1980s was just a bad time for actors of southeast Asian descent even though they are fluent through this movie.
In Mortal Kombat, Raiden is inspired by Lightning and Shang Tsung was inspired by Lo Pan.
There has been a sequel in the works for about five years said to star Dwayne Johnson, but maybe they can give Wyatt Russell a role. The younger Russell was born about a week after this movie was released.
I’m not sure how a sequel would fare. I definitely don’t think a remake/reboot is a good idea. Part of the appeal of Big Trouble was what we saw on the screen. Martial arts movies didn’t really have the biggest budgets and most of what we saw was the result of creative choices because of budget restraints.
The movie ended with the hint of a sequel as Jack and Gracie looking at each other and Jack getting back in his truck to go off on another trip with a secret passenger in the back. It would be nice to see what has happened in the 35 years since.