by Thom Yee
I don’t like to use the term “tour de force” very often, so when I say that “Big Trouble in Little China is a tour de force”, I mean it really is a “tour de force”. To all fans of awesomeness as a non-ironic force of awesome, I can’t recommend Big Trouble in Little China enough. It’s got everything — over-the-top action, ham-fisted romance, the Hell of the Upside Down Sinners.
It’s hard to explain what it is that makes Big Trouble in Little China so great, mostly because said explanation would require a scene-for-scene description and re-enactment of the entire movie because it’s all amazing. I guess it all comes down to Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton, who, for lack of a better term, is a “tour de force” (am I using that right?).
So to you, Grace, and to anyone else who’s listening out there on a dark and stormy night, 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 you’ve seen Big Trouble in Little China… 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 seen Big Trouble in Little China, Jack?” “Yessir, I’ve seen Big Trouble in Little China. And it was a ‘tour de force’.”
Jack Burton is a reasonable guy who is about to experience some very unreasonable things. Like magic. Chinese black magic. And monsters and ghosts, and sorcery. When Jack’s best (?) friend’s fiance is kidnapped by the Lords of Death, he finds himself in a world beyond his [limited] comprehension. People appear out of thin air, flying around on wires, riding bolts of lightning, cutting everybody to shreds. And as big as all of that may seem… that’s just the beginning.
After promising and promising that I would sit down and watch Big Trouble in Little China for about three weeks, I finally sat down one dark and stormy night (well, it was windy, anyway) and soldiered my way through. Unfortunately that was last night, and I got about halfway through before I realized that it was after midnight, and I have this condition where I fall unconscious for several hours, hallucinate vividly, and don’t remember any of it the next morning. So I paused the movie and returned to it tonight. I finished it about five minutes ago, and here is my initial impression:
I have no idea what the frak I just watched.
There has been a shift in the balance of things. Where we have previously been lucky enough to recommend things that the other liked, however grudgingly, I have brought us to a precipice that must be crossed. There is no turning back. I am about to write a scathing review.
Well, okay, not scathing. It’s not like it was T*witches, after all. (And on the day I write that review, the earth will quake, poison arrows will fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven will shake, and even
Kurt Russell Jack Burton will be quaking in those ridiculous boots of his.) This review will be as bold as I dare, although it’s hard to feel bold when you’re wrapped in a warm blanket and you’re wearing fuzzy socks. But the socks are coming off, and so is the gauntlet, but nothing else, because this is not that kind of review.
It is entirely possible that Thom is going to kill me for the words I’m about to write: when I first saw that Wang kid, I thought, “Hey, I didn’t know Mike Chang from Glee did martial arts movies!” I then felt a mixture of strange feelings, namely the fact that I might be racist, since this movie is from the 80’s and that guy wasn’t even born yet (neither was I, for that matter).
Plot-wise, there wasn’t much that made sense. Okay, yes, I’m aware that monsters aren’t real and that there isn’t a secret Chinese hell beneath Chinatown and that Kim Cattrall doesn’t really have green eyes. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief a little, as I am with all of Cattrall’s films. But from the beginning, nothing makes sense.
During that extremely contrived scene at the airport, Cattrall’s character is meeting a girl fresh off the plane from China. Russell Burton and Wang are doing the same, except with a different girl, who is definitely not Chinese (but I’m trying to suspend disbelief, so I’ll let it slide). The heartwarming reunion between Cattrall and Chinese Girl and the almost-reunion between Wang and his fiancee, Not-Chinese Girl, are both interrupted by an extremely rude gang known as the Lords of Subtlety Death. They kidnap Not-Chinese Girl from the arrival area (which, even pre-9/11, would raise some alarms) and… to be honest, I kind of lost track at that point. I remember
Jack Burton screw it, he’s Kurt Russell and we all know it, wearing glasses, and there was a hell with people hanging upside down and a wheelchair falling down a well, but I have no idea how any of that fits together. I also have no idea how Cattrall fits in with anything, because it’s never explained who Chinese Girl is and what they were doing at the airport. For that matter, it’s never explained what the hell Kim Cattrall is doing in Chinatown, especially since nobody there seems to like her much.
Let’s skip ahead to the point where David Lo Pan, an unfortunately cursed Chinese gentleman, is pondering the breaking of his curse. He needs a lady with green eyes, and as it just so happens, Kim Cattrall and Not-Chinese-Girl both have green eyes. Two of Lo Pan’s three henchmen show off their prowess with weapons before the ladies grab swords and rise to the ceiling. (O-kaaay…) Of course they both pass, so Lo Pan declares, “They have survived the burning blade, tamed the savage heart… I will marry both women.” Because of course. So fast forward to his big fat polygamist wedding.
If I’m ever invited to a wedding with that much neon, I’m fleeing in the opposite direction, screaming all the way, and I’m taking my custom engraved gravy boat with me because these people are obviously too insane to appreciate fine silver and they’ll probably just turn it into a bong or snort something out of it or… well, obviously I have no idea how drugs work. Kurt Russell and the rest of his posse do, though, and they drink some magic potion and crash the wedding. Everybody gets really excited and starts yelling in Chinese, and Russell fires his gun early, which would be embarrassing in any case except he hit the ceiling and got KO’d by the falling rubble, which is why you don’t bring a gun to a martial arts fight.
The ensuing fight scene was choreographed by someone with a profound misunderstanding of gravity, which again I’m going to let slide. Now, maybe I wasn’t watching too closely, but I honestly don’t remember when everything caught fire. Was that when Egg, the kindly old shopkeeper/secret wizard tried to attack Lo Pan and hit the giant neon statue instead? Because if so, I’d like to quote another movie about Chinese people, starring a lot of extremely talented actors and Eddie Murphy: “How could you miss? He was three feet in front of you!” Lo Pan didn’t take too kindly to that, so he and Egg whipped out their game controllers, fired up a game of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Holograms, and after about thirty seconds of awkward old-man-fighting, apparently beat Egg and verbally teabagged him.
So ancient Chinese magic and monsters aside, yeah, there were a lot of plot issues. But I haven’t even mentioned the biggies yet. Everyone spends the movie yelling at Russell, telling him to “come on, Jack,” and bossing him around. He just goes along with it! He might toss in a swear word or two to make it clear that he’s not having fun, but he’s just along for the ride, and he’s making no effort to grab the steering wheel. For all that he’s such a badass, he’s not in charge of this adventure at all. They even take the trouble to point this out:
Jack: I don’t get this at all. I thought Lo Pan…
Lo Pan: Shut up, Mr. Burton! You are not brought upon this world to get it!
Final point, and it may be a bit of a letdown for some of you, but it absolutely bothered the hell out of me for ninety minutes. For one thing, Kurt Russell is a trucker who clearly is not the best at driving, since he keeps trucking into alleys that have no business having trucks in them, and he’s screwed if he hits a dead end and has to back out.
For another thing, after that long without reporting to his supervisors to let them know he’s on the way back from his supposedly uneventful (for all they know) delivery to Chinatown, you’d think he’d be fired, or at the very least seriously reprimanded. But he gambles the night away, meanders over to the airport in a semi, gets involved in gang warfare, travels to the deepest circles of Chinese hell, kills a two-thousand-year-old James Hong in drag, and heads back home without so much as a “sorry I missed your call, I was doing vague things with vague people” and a monster in his truck.
And to complete the trucker trifecta, Burton probably hasn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in days. I would be willing to bet the contents of my bank account, my imaginary gravy boat, and my fuzzy socks that ninety percent of the film is a hallucination born of sleep deprivation.
That being said, I haven’t seen a martial arts film like this since Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, and that came about fifteen years later. The eighties were doing campy movies before it was ironic, and the earnestness is kind of endearing. So while the eighties have never been and probably will never be my cup of tea, this wasn’t a total waste of an hour and a half (although I’m sure I would have enjoyed it much more with a bottle of tequila). To paraphrase Egg, “That was nothing. But that’s how a liking for cult classics always begins: very small.”
- I loved that James Hong played David Lo Pan. I had a nagging suspicion throughout the film that he sounded familiar, and he was: he also played Chen in The Big Bang Theory and Chi Fu in Mulan.
- I also loved the steaming goblets of potion, although I was a little worried that one of the actors would knock back his drink and get a faceful of dry ice.
- “And now, my beloved disciples: the moment of truth, the needle of love.” Well… um… it’s, uh… oh, hell, I am just too immature to appreciate fine cinema. Once he started poking Not-Chinese Girl with his needle of love, the movie lost any sense of drama it might have once possessed.