Revisiting John Carpenter’s fun-filled affront to Hollywood stereotypes
John Carpenter’s explanation for the aesthetic absurdity inherent in Big Trouble in Little China, which he described as an “action adventure comedy Kungfu ghost story monster movie”, is a belter. What he failed to mention is the film evolved out of an original script by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein that pitched the narrative as a turn of the century western set in San Francisco featuring a gunslinger character in the role of Jack Burton.
In a bid to up the mad factor and possibly to broaden the film’s appeal given that the western in the 80s was experiencing a downturn in popularity, the script was handed to W.D. Richter, the man responsible for genre-bending, 80s cult favourite The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, to revise. Richter, who considered the original script a load of old tosh, updated the script to modern-day San Francisco, and reportedly jettisoned much of the original material, with the story of Lo Pan, the film’s primary antagonist, being the one surviving element. Carpenter’s involvement meant the script would undergo further revisions to provide Kim Cattrall’s character, Gracie Law, with a bit more involvement. Carpenter also eliminated elements that were considered offensive to the Chinese-American community and revised some of the key action sequences to reflect the film’s budget. Ultimately, Goldman and Weinstein both received a writing credit for the movie. Richter’s work was acknowledged via an ‘adapted by’ credit after a dispute involving The Writer’s Guild resulted in a ruling that awarded credit to Goldman and Weinstein as the original co-authors.
Studio execs originally wanted the role of Burton to go to Jack Nicholson or Clint Eastwood, both of whom turned the part down. Carpenter wanted Kurt Russell, who he’d worked with on a variety of projects in the past. However, execs were twitchy due to the fact that The Golden Child, a film with similar thematic and aesthetic sensibilities, was under development over at Paramount. That movie had sure-fire box-office star Eddie Murphy attached and it was felt that if Big Trouble in Little China was to succeed it would need a big-name player to get it over the finish line.
Carpenter would eventually have his way. He would also get his first-choice leading lady in Cattrall, despite the fact that the studio wanted a rock star in the lead. He was less successful in securing Jackie Chan’s participation. Chan had originally been the favourite to play the Wang Chi role, which eventually went to Dennis Dun. Chan turned the role down partially because his English wasn’t up to much, and also because of the failure of The Protector at the box office, the star’s second punt at cracking Hollywood as a leading man. Chan subsequently returned to Hong Kong, clearing the way for Dennis Dun, who, off the back of Year of The Dragon, secured the role a few days before the commencement of principal photography.
Jack Burton: When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favourite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: “Have ya paid your dues, Jack?” “Yessir, the check is in the mail.”
Big Trouble in Little China was rushed into production to beat The Golden Child into cinemas. But while The Golden Child, which would receive lukewarm reviews, would go on to make plenty of cash at the box office, Big Trouble in Little China would sink on both counts. Despite this, it’s easy to see why Carpenter’s CV made him a perfect fit for the material. Though never having made an actual Western, the DNA of cowboy cinema was mixed up with a lot of his work. Assault on Precinct 13 was a modern-day retelling of Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo and Escape from New York featured a spaghetti western anti-hero in Kurt Russel’s Snake Plisken. Then there was B movie drive-in remake The Thing, with a score by Sergio Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone. Whilst it may have been a body horror, science fiction action movie on the surface, underneath it was a frontier western all the way. It’s no surprise that it would go on to influence Quentin Tarantino’s snowbound, paranoid Western, The Hateful Eight, which would also feature Kurt Russell in its star-studded line-up. Big Trouble in Little China may be a hyperbolic kung-fu movie set in a mystical Chinese underworld in modern day San Francisco, but it’s as much an ode to the screwball comedies and westerns of Howard Hawks and traditional western hero standards, as it is the craziness of Hong Kong actioners and Old Hollywood ‘yellow peril’ movies.
The film starts out with Kurt Russell’s prototypical stranger in a strange land, Jack Burton, rolling into town on trusty steed The Pork-chop Express late one night to make a delivery in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Burton quickly becomes embroiled in a fantastical kidnap case and forms a culturally diverse alliance with Kim Cattrall’s plucky lawyer Gracie Law, Victor Wong’s eccentric tour bus operator Egg Shen and Dennis Dun’s diminutive martial arts master Wang Chi to help thwart the machinations of cursed subterranean sorcerer David Lo Pan, who has kidnapped Chi’s paramour Miao Yin to help break an age old curse that can only be broken by a girl with green eyes. Thus begins a bonkers rescue mission involving oriental magic, cursed phantoms, upside down rooms, an assortment of bizarre monsters, lots of martial arts courtesy of James Lew’s fight choreography, a rather kick-ass score and end credits song from John Carpenter and The Coup De Villes, an occasional exploding bad guy, endless amounts of hilarity and some genuine horror that is as unexpected as it is bizarre.
In terms of its treatment of Chinese American culture, many critics at the time heckled its stereotyped depictions. Roger Ebert panned the flick, completely missing the point when he described it as being ‘straight out of the era of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, with no apologies and all the usual stereotypes.’ Whilst James Hong’s hilariously excessive David Lo Pan bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Lee in full ‘yellow-face’ as evil criminal mastermind Dr Fu Manchu in The Face of Fu Manchu, it is reasonable to suggest that Big Trouble in Little China acknowledges Hollywood’s tendency toward cringeworthy depictions of Asian villainy onscreen, and subverts and conquers them, rather than celebrating and endorsing them as a credible representation. It certainly doesn’t imply Western culture is superior. If anything, Big Trouble in Little China does a more impressive job of subverting the western hero archetype than it does subverting xenophobic depictions of Asian wickedness. Nothing is more indicative of this than the fact that the real hero of the piece is Wang Chi and not Jack Burton, whose cod John Wayne impersonation is undermined at every turn. He is outmuscled by his action-packed Asian teammates, who are better equipped to battle Lo Pan and his elemental henchmen and he is outsmarted by intellectually superior motormouth Gracie Law, whose screwball love interest treads a fine line in expository chatter.
Jack Burton: You know what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like this?
Jack Burton: Jack Burton. *Me*!
Big Trouble in Little China begins with an introduction from Egg Shen recounting the heroic exploits of Jack Burton. Though Carpenter plays this as tongue-in-cheek, it wasn’t originally in the script. Studio execs insisted on the addition, since they wanted to inflate Jack’s heroic status in post-production to rival that of his co-star Dennis Dun. Ultimately, it works to the film’s advantage, since Carpenter was smart enough to use it as an opportunity to prime the audience to expect a white saviour in the traditional American hero mould, before pulling the rug out when it becomes apparent that Jack Burton is more adept at talking the talk than walking the walk. It is this subversion of the traditional, white, all-American John Wayne archetype, juxtaposed with the understated, limelight-shunning heroics of Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi, that works best in the film. Whilst Jack’s faux John Wayne mannerisms and bluster are at the heart of proceedings, providing warmth, humour, an endless stream of quotable one-liners, and a sympathetic focal point for Western audiences amidst the chaos of Eastern mythological exaggeration, it’s really Chi who is the hero.
Jack spends the entirety of the film believing his own superiority, even though the evidence is stacked against him. This is best exemplified in a scene where Jack’s gunslinger antics are rendered ineffectual during a key action sequence when he manages to score an amazing own goal by firing an automatic pistol in the air, only to have a chunk of masonry fall on his head, rendering him unconscious. American cultural supremacy, represented by Burton, is relegated to the role of sidekick, a role usually reserved for ethnic minority archetypes. Wang Chi, meanwhile, as a modern representative of Asian culture on-screen, goes head-to-head with an entirely stereotyped, Sax Rohmer inspired malevolence, and though it’s Jack who throws the final knife, it’s categorically Chi who makes defeating the bad guy possible.
As with any reasonably budgeted fantasy outing, the success of Big Trouble in Little China was dependant on its effects crew. The three elemental masters, Thunder, Rain and Lightning, required complex visual effects to render their powers convincing. Similarly, the floating eyeball, Lo Pan’s roving underworld spy, required puppeteers, complex animatronics and no end of problem solving to render it effectively. Lo Pan himself would require a bunch of make-up and prosthetics given he was one-part ghost sorcerer to two parts ancient hunchback. Then there was the Chinese Wildman, last seen hitching a ride on The Pork-chop Express, the sewer monster, the duel of Lo Pan and Egg Shen, and a grief-stricken elemental having an explosive meltdown to resolve.
Carpenter was underwhelmed by some of the work completed by Richard Edlund’s Boss Films Studios, who were responsible for delivering on the film’s effects quota. However, the film’s rushed production, not to mention the limited budget available ($2 million) to cover the effects cost, made it difficult for Edlund’s team to deliver on all their promises. Though some of the movie’s effects might not have been as polished as the director would have liked, the vast majority were incredibly impressive. Coupled with some wonderful production design from John J. Lloyd, whose recreation of Chinatown was detailed and convincing, the overall aesthetic proved wackily inventive, and tonally in keeping with the film’s outlandish premise.
Margo: God, aren’t you even gonna kiss her goodbye?
Jack Burton: Nope.
Despite a test screening that indicated audiences enjoyed the movie immensely and the filmmaker’s conviction that they had a winner on their hands, John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China flatlined in theatres. The film, which cost $25 million to make, barely managed to recoup half its original budget. This was probably due to poor marketing, since the studio was unsure how to promote the film, and the release of Aliens, one of the year’s most anticipated movies, shortly after Big Trouble in Little China premiered in cinemas, was also likely a factor, overshadowing Carpenter’s film, which disappeared from theatres almost as soon as it had entered them.
Big Trouble in Little China’s failure hit Carpenter hard. He returned to independent filmmaking shortly after, citing negative experiences on the film as his primary rationale. With the exception of Memoirs of an Invisible Man in 1992, Carpenter would avoid studio productions for the remainder of his career. Big Trouble in Little China, meanwhile, continued to grow in popularity. A strong showing on VHS, coupled with a series of midnight movie screenings, raised the film’s profile. Over the years, as with a lot of Carpenter flops, it has acquired cult classic status and is often cited by creatives as a key influence on their work.
Lightning, one of the film’s elemental masters, was cited as a key influence on Mortal Kombat’s Raiden character in the long-running game series from Midway. Taika Waititi, meanwhile, acknowledged the film as a key influence on Marvel Studios’ excellent Thor: Ragnarök, citing Jack Burton’s fish-out-of-water truck driver as a template for the God of Thunder and Lighting. A comic book continuation, co-scripted by Carpenter, was released via BOOM! Studios in 2014, whilst a further four-issue series, also co-scripted by Carpenter titled Big Trouble in Little China: Old Man Jack, was released in 2017.
A potential remake/sequel was also announced in 2015 with Dwayne Johnson attached as the potential hero of the piece, but due to the merger of 20th Century Fox with Disney in 2019, the project entered a state of limbo. At the time of writing, little is known of the fate of the project, or whether for now, The Pork-chop Express has been placed into indefinite storage.