Updated: Jul 10, 2021
It's all in the reflexes.
Kurt Russell stars in John Carpenter’s inventive retelling of Chinese mythology with fun action scenes, fantastically dark humour and some excellent characters in this martial arts comedy cult classic.
The plot follows cross country trucker Jack Burton (Russell) as he is caught in the middle of an ancient war in San Francisco’s Chinatown. A simple airport kidnapping leads Jack into a world beyond his imagination as he encounters the ancient sorcerer David Lo Pan (James Hong) who needs to marry a green-eyed girl in order to break his ancient curse and release him upon the world. As the plot continues, Jack is pulled further and further into the mystical world as he teams up with his best friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) and Egg Shen (Victor Wong) as they infiltrate Lo Pan’s interdimensional fortress in order to defeat the evil sorcerer.
First off, the acting in this movie is perfect for the tone of the film. Kurt Russell is in his element as the trucker out of his depth, projecting a John Wayne-esque air of confidence and bravado while giving his character a broad, satirical edge as the sidekick who believes he’s the leading man that I enjoy watching over and over again. The supporting cast is also exceptional with sorcerer Egg Shen and the mystical three storms, Thunder, Rain, and Lightning being some of my favourite characters in the movie. Wang Chi shines as the “sidekick” that actually knows what he’s doing compared to Jack, especially in the fight scenes.
However, the standout character has to be Lo Pan, played by the exceptionally talented James Hong (seriously, give this guy a Hollywood walk of fame star already!). He infuses the character with this mystical wonder and makes me sympathise with him a little bit. The only stumble for me with the acting is Kim Cattrall’s lawyer Gracie Law. She’s a fine actress but the script just doesn’t give her character enough agency for Cattrall to show off her acting talent.
Next up is the stunt work and because this is a martial arts film, this is a massive component of the film… and the film knocks it out of the park! Taking the campy nature of B grade martial arts movies of the time period, the film shows its appreciation for these films in almost every single fight scene. The first fight scene features two warring sides during a funeral procession and from here the fight scenes in the movie build to more absurd levels. The satirical nature of the movie really cuts through in the fight scenes. A memorable scene is during the first fight scene. A man knees a guy in the face so hard he snaps the plank of wood he was holding. Just let that sentence sink in for a second. That sets the tone for the movie so tongue in cheek that the tongue has burrowed through the cheek and is currently en route to New York.
The effects in the movie are well suited for this film, matching the stunt work’s high energy nature. This is unexpected considering that Boss Film Studios didn’t exactly satisfy Carpenter as he thought they took on more projects than they could handle and he believed this would lead to the film’s effects being lacklustre. Thankfully, this was not the case and the effects, while a little soft in 2020, still looks good enough to not drag me out of the experience and are visually striking enough to not just blend into the scenery.
When designing the soundtrack, Carpenter decided to forego the typical score employed in martial arts movies of the time and went with his own style of synthesised rock and roll that he had become known for. It’s kicking and I really love this soundtrack with the riffs and chords throughout the movie.
Along with the soundtrack, Carpenter’s directing in this movie is well done. Shot by Dean Cundley, the cinematography he uses is subtly done and the cuts and shots he has chosen keeps the flow and pace of the movie fast to match the high energy of the script and soundtrack. I like this fast-paced approach as it doesn’t feel like the movie drags at any point and it doesn’t leave the audience bored because of it.
Overall, Big Trouble in Little China is a fun satirical love letter to the 1980’s martial arts movies. Kurt Russell and James Hong steal the show with their eccentric character acting and the high energy soundtrack and cinematography keeps the movie a fast-paced and enjoyable ride.
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