FOOTAGE FETISHES: “BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA”

“The check is in the mail.”

Russell plays the immortal Jack Burton: truck driver, philosopher, and Real Man…just don’t let the Baja jacket and suede lace-up boots (popular with legions of Krokus fans) fool you. He rolls into town on his faithful rig, the Pork Chop Express, then sits down to play Fan Tan and drink beer with his good buddy Wang Chi. They play through the night, with Jack winning all of Wang’s money and then some. Wang agrees to come up with the difference, but first he and Jack must go to the airport and pick up his girlfriend, Miao Yin. As luck would have it, Miao is kidnapped by a gang named, without a hint of irony, “The Lords of Death” (which might have had the desired sinister effect if every gang member didn’t dress like an extra from Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video). The pair chases the gang to Chinatown, where they stumble onto a fight between rival factions the Chang Sings and the Wing Kong. In the ensuing confusion, Jack’s truck is stolen. Now they have to get both Miao and the Pork Chop Express back.

Sounds simple, yes? Not so fast bubba, for the Lords of Death have delivered Miao Yin to a local brothel, as her green eyes make her a highly valued prize. Minutes before Jack and Wang can get her out, she’s kidnapped yet again, this time by the supernatural agents of the evil sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong). Lo Pan needs the girl to remove an ancient curse, and now Jack and Wang are forced to team up with the likes of area lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and local coot Egg Shen (Victor Wong) to get her back. The ensuing journey takes them into the Lo Pan’s fantastical and terrifying subterranean lair to confront the villain and his Wing Kong minions.

Reviewers savaged “Big Trouble in Little China” on its release. Most of them no doubt entered the theater expecting an action-adventure flick and missed the point that Carpenter himself finally confirmed on the commentary for last year’s DVD release: Russell’s Jack Burton is not the hero of the film. He’s the character we follow around the most, which his staggering arrogance and braggadocio make hard to avoid, but it’s Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) who centers the story. Wang is the one who knows the mythology surrounding the events that have befallen them, he’s the one whose love interest is being held captive, and he’s the only one of the pair who can actually handle himself in a fight. Burton – the sidekick – only kills two bad guys (well, three if you count the guy he shoots by accident). The rest of the time he’s unconscious, pinned under a dead mystical warrior, or has to have his fat pulled from the fire by Wang or one of the other Chang Sings.

Carpenter must have known the character of Jack Burton would spell box office death, and truthfully, Burton’s John Wayne wannabe shtick would be supremely off-putting if he wasn’t such a loveably incompetent boob. Had Carpenter gone the other way and backed up Burton’s bluster with some serious ass-kicking ability, “Big Trouble in Little China” might very well have succeeded financially. Unfortunately, it would’ve been a horrible film.

“Just happened to be in the neighborhood on a dark and stormy night?”
“Big Trouble in Little China” shares a screenwriter (W.D. Richter) with one of my other favorite films of the 1980’s: “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.” This has led to speculation that “Trouble” started out as a sequel to “Buckaroo.” (Hanoi Xan of the World Crime League became David Lo Pan, etc. etc.). I have no reason to doubt this, except there are just as many sources that say “Trouble” started as a Western which was later retooled to fit into a modern setting. Either story works for me. Just don’t say it was envisioned as one of the Star Wars prequels or I might lose all hope.

I bring up Richter’s involvement not only to further dig myself into a nerd hole, but to point out the skilled use of the supporting cast in both movies. Buckaroo’s Hong Kong Cavaliers weren’t just sidekicks, they were gun-toting, guitar-playing badasses in their own right. In Richter’s “Big Trouble in Little China” script this is taken a step further, to the point where just about every other character – hero or villain – is more competent than Jack Burton. Hong’s Lo Pan is the picture of frustrated menace. He veers from serene displays of power (as we’re frequently reminded, Jack Burton drove the Pork Chop Express straight THROUGH him) to extreme annoyance (“Now this really pisses me off to no end.”). Likewise, his three Storms (Thunder, Lightning, and Rain) embody superhuman single-mindedness, even if they are lifted straight from early ‘80s Hong Kong kung-fu fare.

Kim Cattrall is best known these days for her portrayal of über-libertine Samantha Jones on HBO’s inexplicably popular “Sex and the City.” As Gracie Law, she was more than a capable foil for Russell…as Samantha, she’s horrifying. It’s testament to her ability that the same actor can easily pull off such divergent roles. I mean, that’s quite a chasm between one of my all-time favorite movies and a TV series whose very existence should call into question the presence of a benevolent and loving God.

Gracie doesn’t get many good lines – this is a slam-bang manly man’s action-comedy after all – but she never ends up as merely the damsel in distress either. That honor is left to Suzee Pai as Miao Yin.

Speaking of Pai, who besides me didn’t know she was Penthouse Pet of the Year for 1981? I don’t normally keep track of these things (honest, Mom), so I was as surprised as anyone to discover that the demure and virginal Miao Yin had gotten naked for Bob Guccione five years earlier. What threw me off was her total lack of disrobement. Seriously, how many former nudie magazine starlets end up keeping their clothes on in subsequent films (someone will have to let me know her status in “Sharky’s Machine”).

Get the rest of the story in part three of FOOTAGE FETISHES: “BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA”>>>




Posted on September 2, 2003 in Features by
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