Big Trouble in Little China at 35: One of the Best John Carpenter-Kurt Russell Collaborations

(Disclaimer: This feature article contains spoilers)

The 1980s era was a quintessential decade for Kurt Russell, appearing in genre classics that include Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing (1982). Both films were directed by John Carpenter and they collaborated again for the third time in Big Trouble in Little China in 1986.

An interesting hybrid of action-comedy, martial arts, fantasy and Chinese mythology, Big Trouble in Little China was no doubt an unusual Hollywood film that made its way during the 1986 summer movie season. It was the same season that mostly dominated by traditional blockbusters like Top Gun, The Karate Kid Part II and Aliens. So, I guess it was a ballsy move for an oddity like Big Trouble in Little China competing against these high-profile films.

Fox invested around US$25 million for the film but somehow audiences at the time just weren’t interested to check it out when it opened on July 4, 1986. There were five newcomers during that July 4-6, 1986 opening weekend and whereas films like Psycho III and The Great Mouse Detective debuted at the bottom of the Top 10 chart, Big Trouble in Little China had a disappointing start at… No. 12 with a paltry US$2.7 million. The film ultimately failed to recoup its budget after it only ended up with just US$11.1 million. But just like The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China enjoyed better success through home video release and has since become a cult classic.

James Pax plays Lightning in "Big Trouble in Little China" (1986)

Turning 35 this year, I recently rewatched Big Trouble in Little China and still enjoyed the way John Carpenter incorporated various genres with the help of Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein’s wildly imaginative screenplay. Part of the film’s enduring charms lies in its ability to mesh fantasy and Chinese mythology into a Hollywood film. For instance, the film introduced not one but three Chinese warriors, where each of them has unique powers. Thunder (Carter Wong) is capable of expanding his own body. Rain (Peter Kwong), in the meantime, is a martial arts expert in sword fighting while Lightning (James Pax) able to manipulate and shoot lightning from his hands. Then, there’s Lo Pan played by the incomparable James Hong, the main antagonist who turns out to be an ancient evil sorcerer.

The film is also blessed with other colourful characters, namely the late Victor Wong (who died in 2001 at the age of 74) as sorcerer Egg Shen and Dennis Dun as Wang Chi, a restaurant owner and a martial arts expert. The latter also played Jack Burton’s (Kurt Russell) best friend and both of them shared great buddy-movie chemistry.

A scene from "Big Trouble in Little China" (1986)

Here’s a more interesting part about Kurt Russell’s role as the main protagonist. Russell is often synonymous with a tough hero/anti-hero role as evidently seen in the likes of Escape from New York and The Thing and most audiences would expect the same characteristic in Big Trouble in Little China.

But John Carpenter subverts that common expectation by making him more of a wisecracking sidekick, even though he was credited as the main star of the film. He may look like a tough guy with an attitude who drives a truck for a living. And yet, he’s hardly the kind of classic heroic type you would expect from him whenever there’s big trouble (no pun intended) happens. Come to think of it, it was actually a right move, considering Jack is just a trucker and an outsider who gets caught in an out-of-the-world situation he can’t understand. So, it’s more logical to have his best friend Wang, who’s better equipped with the necessary knowledge and happens to be a skilful martial artist.

The Guardian in "Big Trouble in Little China" (1986)

Despite the film was made in 1986, I’m surprised that most of the special effects still hold up well even today, with the lightning effect happens to be one of them. The film also made good use of both make-up and practical effects, which can be seen in Lo Pan’s withered look of a frail old man in a wheelchair. Another notable effect is the brief appearance of the sasquatch-like Wild Man, who was actually performed by a stunt man in a costume. Let’s not forget about The Guardian, Lo Pan’s blob-looking floating head with various eyeballs which reportedly cost over US$100,000 t0 make and even required more than 60 artists and engineers to make it happen.

Believe it or not, Big Trouble in Little China wasn’t originally intended to be made as a modern fantasy-action hybrid. Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein’s initial script was written as a Western film that takes place in Chinatown in 1899, where Jack Burton turns out to be an expert gunman. But the script was gradually rewritten by W.D. Richter (1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), where he changed the story to a more contemporary feel.

In 2015, Dwayne Johnson surprised everyone that he was set to produce and star in Big Trouble in Little China remake. The decision naturally didn’t sit well with the fans of the 1986 cult classic. Then three years later, another news broke out that it wasn’t actually a remake but will serve more as a continuation to the original film. However, there was an attempt at a sequel way before Dwayne Johnson came along, where 1987’s Innerspace screenwriter Chip Proser actually put together a script. He reportedly wrote two drafts but none of them was materialised since the first film already failed to make money in the box office. Personally, I always wonder how Big Trouble in Little China sequel would turn out to be if it was made during the 90s when Kurt Russell still at the peak of his career, particularly after the first film’s open ending that saw the Wild Man hiding in Jack’s truck.