Retro Review: ‘Big Trouble In Little China’ (1986)

With all news about Dwayne Johnson signing on to do a remake of John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China, it seemed like the right time to revisit the original 1986 film and see if it holds up today. It had been years, decades, since I sat down and watched Big Trouble In Little China, almost to the point where I was coming in fresh to the material. It was still a great entertainment in the end.

Big Trouble isn’t any sort of award-winning masterwork, it isn’t even in the upper tier of classic 80s films as far as I’m concerned. But what it is is a time capsule of 1986, existing strictly as a relic of the decade in which it was produced for a myriad of reasons. It is also a movie filled to the brim with an adventurous spirit which, these days, is often stripped away from the typical Hollywood remake in lieu of CGI overload. If “The Rock” is going to got through with this remake, my only requests is that he have fun.

Big Trouble In Little China 2

Would Big Trouble In Little China exist were it not for the oddly unhinged and borderline idiot savant performance from Kurt Russell? After collaborating on an Elvis biopic, The Thing and Escape From New York, Russell and Carpenter had a strong working relationship and they teamed up to create Jack Burton, an everyman truck driver swept up in the fictional underworld of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Russell is key to the film’s satirical success, playing Burton as a prideful leader loaded with false bravado and many flaws, but nevertheless willing to flex his biceps in the face of danger. He is a mix of John Wayne, Han Solo, and Charlie Brown.

Jack is dragged into danger by his buddy, Wang (Dennis Dun), who implores him to go to the airport and pick up his “girl,” a green-eyed Chinese woman named Miao Yin. Miao is immediately kidnapped at the airport, and the entire plot revolves around Jack and Wang revering Miao from the clutches of Chinese gangsters, mystics, and a 2,000 year-old sorcerer named Lo Pan who wants to use Miao’s green eyes to rejuvenate his body and continue his run of immortality.

Big Trouble In Little China

Along for the ride are Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and Margo, a plucky reporter played by Kate Burton. The group encounters one obstacle after another, from warring gangs on the streets of Chinatown, to mystical bodyguards, to troll-like beasts and floating monstrous orbs… Carpenter and his special effects team throw everything at the screen, leading to the final showdown at what clearly looks like a mall. But, hey, I’m not here to be overly critical, and nobody who sees Big Trouble In Little China should go into this film trying to pick it apart on a cinematic level.

Big Trouble In Little China is an “onion story,” one that peels apart layer by layer from one predicament to another until we reach that final showdown, at the mall (I mean, that is clearly an escalator!). Kurt Russell owns the film as Jack Burton, outshining everyone else who is simply along for the ride, and his performance only emphasizes the point that the world needs more of Kurt Russell in prominent film roles. For 1986, the special effects in Big Trouble In Little China are quite impressive, especially the creature creations.

Something else that might be hard to do in this current climate is portray the Asian characters in the same way. Big Trouble In Little China is a sendup of the Charlie Chan adventures from the 30s, and it is unabashedly stereotypical in its portrayal of Chinese mystics and villains. It might be tough to pull this off in 2015 and beyond, but in 1986 John Carpenter made sure to go way ver the top in his portrayals in order to draw attention to the fact the Chinese were much more caricature that actual character.

Big Trouble In Little China holds up on a nostalgic level, and the spirit at its core works to disguise any flaws. Maybe a remake will serve the source material well, and if anyone is capable of keeping the fun and adventure in the story it is Dwayne Johnson. But, at the same time, I can almost guarantee the remake will suffer without the presence of Kurt Russell in the Jack Burton role.

Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry is the managing editor for Monkeys Fighting Robots. The Dalai Lama once told him when he dies he will receive total consciousness. So he's got that going for him... Which is nice.