Big Trouble in Little China

Jack Burton is nobody special. He’s just your average red-blooded American—a loudmouth truckdriver with a gambling habit and a knack for getting into trouble. When his friend Wang’s fiancée Miao Yin is kidnapped by sex traffickers, Jack agrees to help get her back. This ends up being more complicated than he expected. Before long, Jack finds himself smack in the middle of a longstanding Chinese gang war … and the supernatural interference of some very unpleasant fellows. It turns out that the lovely Miao Yin, a rare green-eyed beauty, caught the eye of legendary bad guy Lo Pan, a 2,000+ year old ghost-demon-sorcerer, who needs a green-eyed girl to break the centuries-old curse that has denied him a physical body all these years. Lo Pan stole Miao Yin from the sex trafficking gang, and now Jack and Wang are going to steal her from Lo Pan. With an assist from some of the boys from Wang’s hood, of course, as well as the neighborhood magician (and tour bus driver) Egg Shen—and the lovely (and also green-eyed) attorney Gracie Law (yes, that really is her name). But Lo Pan and his minions are a tough bunch, and before long Gracie joins Miao Yin. Both damsels are very much in distress. Will Jack and company be able to defeat the bad guys and save the girl(s)?

This is an excellent example of the 1980s version a ‘B movie’. The plot borders on nonsensical, the dialogue is cheesy, and the effects are laughable. Yet, as is so often the case with objectively unimpressive films, Big Trouble in Little China (1986) has wormed its way into the hearts of Americans to become a cult classic. Jack Burton is no Arnold—he can’t kick like JCVD, punch like Stallone, or toss off a snappy one-liner like John McClane. Still, of all Kurt Russell’s many action roles, Jack Burton is among the best-loved. He may not be terribly bright, or a particularly good fighter, but he’s willing to try, and we can’t help liking him. And Carpenter wisely compensates for Jack’s long-on-charm, short-on-skill qualities by feeding the audience a steady string of competent fighters—Wang (and company) v. Lo Pan’s flunkies makes for a pretty entertaining fight scene. Then, too, there’s the flat out bonkers-ness of the plot itself: Lo Pan, now as an impossibly old man in a wheelchair, now as a towering, heavily made up weirdo floating through walls; the supernatural flunkies who shoot lightning; the bizarre ceremony to test whether the green-eyed ladies are qualified to break the curse; the crazy wedding get-ups they wear; Lo Pan’s improbably labyrinthine lair. This is the stuff of which great B movies are made.

While listening to Carpenter and Russell’s commentary for the film* (yes, I am that person), I was struck by something they said. Jack Burton is the ostensible hero of the film, the main character. Wang, his friend, is the sidekick. But throughout the film, Wang is far more heroic than Jack. Wang is determined to save Miao whatever the cost; Jack would much rather collect his gambling winnings and leave. Wang turns out to be a surprisingly agile and effective fighter; Jack is constantly dropping his knife or accidentally injuring himself. Wang takes out minion after minion, armed with nothing more than his bare hands; Jack can’t figure out how to operate a gun. Wang leaps into the thick of the battle; Jack spends most of it incapacitated in one way or another. True, Jack is the one who {SPOILER ALERT} finally takes out Lo Pan, but only after Wang and Egg Shen have mopped up pretty much all the bad guys. Carpenter and Russell acknowledge this, laughing that Jack’s actions are all sidekick, but he doesn’t know it. In his own mind, he’s the hero.