In the summer of 1986, John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China was released. Reviews were middling, box office was lukewarm, and it took a great while before it gained traction in the all important cult-classic fanboy circles. Big Trouble is light and fun, dealing in Eastern mysticism and magic, focusing on an everyman (Kurt Russell) swept up in a centuries-old battle, in a world beneath Chinatown. 80s movie fans adore Big Trouble in Little China, they celebrate it. And it’s fine, yes, perhaps more memorable for nostalgic purposes than for truly being one of Carpenter’s better films.
That same year, just five month later, there was The Golden Child. The Eddie Murphy vehicle – right in the height of Murphy’s powers in Hollywood – dealt with an everyman being swept up in Eastern mysticism and magic, tasked to save a young boy in the face of evil forces. While they aren’t the same story, The Golden Child and Big Trouble in Little China share more than a kindred spirit. Themes, protagonists, and antagonists all feel similar, and some of the sets could easily transfer from one shoot to the other. Both films are lighthearted, adventurous tales of “every-men” in over their heads and up against supernatural forces. And, yes, both are a little racist. Yet, only one is celebrated, while the other – The Golden Child – is chided, dismissed as forgettable drivel.
There is no vast chasm in quality between the two films, and I would argue that The Golden Child is a little better overall. I realize this is sacrilege to plenty of folks, and I do recognize the pop-culture charm and nostalgic appeal of Carpenter’s film. It has the accolades, perhaps stealing some of the thunder from The Golden Child before Murphy’s film ever hit theaters. Release dates may have helped, and hindered, the trajectory of these two films. Big Trouble in Little China was a summer release, the weekend of July 4, whereas The Golden Child was lost in December, amid typically Awards-heavy dramas. It’s seems a strange choice to release The Golden Child then, but so is the case.
Beyond release dates, however, The Golden Child is flat out funnier from top to bottom. Now, I like Kurt Russell as much as the next person. We need more Kurt Russell in our lives if you ask me, which is a main reason why I am amped up for The Hateful Eight. But is Kurt Russell funny? Has he ever been? I contend comedy is not Russell’s forte. He can handle the action and physicality better than most, but when it comes to comedic delivery, Russell typically falls flat. I can’t recall any lighthearted Kurt Russell film where I found him amusing (Overboard? meh), and that’s the case in Big Trouble. His aw-shucks demeanor is perfect for Jack Burton, but his delivery is too gruff and stilted, too wooden for the comedy to take off.
Now, not that Eddie Murphy is funny, or even good anymore. He’s a sad shell of what he once was, poisoned by his own ego. But we aren’t talking about 2015 Eddie Murphy; this is 1986 Eddie, sharp and sarcastic and appropriately amused with his own edge. He dominated Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hrs., and he dominates here. Tell me this isn’t hilarious, vintage Murphy upsetting the herd:
Or what about this one…
Murphy is on point here, playing up on his signature sardonic improvisations. His humor heightens The Golden Child throughout. Not that comedy is the main intention for either film, but it is one of the central tones in both. What about the story in these films?
The story is simply to move the plot forward. They are intended to show off the technological advancements in 1986 special effects, and both serve the story well. But Big Trouble in Little China feels repetitive at times, while The changing locales in The Golden Child keep the kinetics high.
Of course, this is but one man’s opinion. I’m sure this sentiment isn’t shared far and wide, or even close and narrow for that matter. But The Golden Child does, ever so slightly, edge out Big Trouble in Little China for me in terms of quality, watchability, and repeat viewings. There, I said it. I feel so much better having got that off my chest…