Big Trouble in Little China

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Director: John Carpenter
Writers: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W. D. Richter

  • Kurt Russell — Jack Burton
  • Kim Cattrall — Gracie Law
  • Chao Li Chi — Uncle Chu
  • Dennis Dun — Wang Chi
  • James Hong — David Lo Pan
  • Suzee Pai — Miao Yin
  • Victor Wong — Egg Shen
  • Peter Kwong — Rain
  • James Pax — Lightning
  • Carter Wong — Thunder

Twentieth Century Fox: 1986

99 minutes December 2008


Big Trouble in Little China is a fine and surprisingly successful combination of thriller-action, realism that extends into criminal-underworld mysticism in San Francisco's Chinatown, and humor. James Hong plays David Lo Pan, a very long-lived sorcerer who, to lift an ancient curse, needs a refresher sacrifice of a green-eyed girl. He manages to find one, Miao Yin (played by Suzee Pai), who his henchmen kidnap as she arrives from China to marry Wang Chi (Dennis Dun's character). — Straightforward so far.

Into this mix we throw Kurt Russell as truck driver Jack Burton, taking his big semi into the narrow streets of Chinatown for his regular delivery. After Burton's been hanging out and gambling with Wang Chi and other pals, they go to the airport where they witness Miao Yin's kidnapping, and incidentally run into another green-eyed girl (played by Kim Cattrall). — Action and suspense; still straightforward.

Now add into the mix an intermittent tong war between a couple of Chinese-American street gangs variously armed with traditional weapons and submachine-guns. Don't mess with the sorcerer who's the crime boss of Chinatown, nor try to interfere with his long-planned sacrifice. — Plenty of action and danger, and some humor in our regular-guy truck driver's reactions to somehow getting in the middle of a kidnapping and a tong war. Egg Shen (played by Victor Wong) is a Chinatown tour-bus driver who also drives into trouble, but may be more than he seems. Realism meets fantasy, humor meets danger. Everyone reacts according to his character and his knowledge of the semi-hidden factors.

But further, let the sorcerer begin showing his magical powers. When he has put on his Aspect, the wheelchair-bound ancient is young and vigorous, can levitate and other surprises. — Ah, getting a bit weird here. Our good guys are having to learn fast and stretch their responses.

Now let's see some heavy-duty magic, major henchmen of the sorcerer. The Three Storms — Thunder, Lightning, and Rain — are demigods or mystical adepts wielding their several elements of weather. They are at the call of the sorcerer, but like natural weather, seem a little given to grandstanding at the expense of focused power. Carter Wong as Thunder is especially good. — Whoa, getting very weird now. How can the good guys cope with all this?

Big Trouble in Little China is an odd mixture, but it works well: weird magic and danger, a lot of fun and good adventure. One reason the mix works is a sense of realism, that we're in an odd corner of the real world, with real people, encountering various degrees of strangeness. Very enjoyable.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson


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