John Carpenter is a fascinating and variegated director of genre cinema. He reinvented horror cinema with Halloween and The Thing, as well as action cinema with Escape from New York and Assault on Precinct Thirteen. He had an incredibly prolific decade from the late 70s to the late 80s, the success of which ought to have gone to his head. Luckily, Carpenter had enough of a sense of humor—and self-awareness—to direct Big Trouble in Little China toward the end of this spree.
Jack Burton (Carpenter regular, Kurt Russell) is a trucker of simple tastes: he likes his truck, white tank tops and drinking beer. He also has a good friend in restaurant owner and martial arts master, Wang (Dennis Dun), whom Jack offers to help pick up his fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) from the airport in San Francisco. While there, a gang of Chinese thugs kidnaps the woman, seemingly as a consolation for being unable to reach the immigrant client of civil rights lawyer, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall, game as hell). While in pursuit of the gangsters, Jack loses his truck and encounters Lo Pan (James Hong), the ancient demon who plans to marry the green eyed Miao Yin in fulfillment of a prophecy that will enable him to become human again. Jack needs that truck for his livelihood, but he also agrees to help Wang get his girl back in the process.
Why is it important that Carpenter make Big Trouble in Little China? Because it aggressively deflates any potential for the hotshot director to get too big for his britches. The movie is an absolute cartoon from start to finish, written with the sort of cleverness you expect from an animation studio studio like Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon in the mid-2000s. I don't say this to be disparaging; Big Trouble in Little China is a ton of fun to watch, even if it doesn't amount to much at all. Kurt Russell does a great job at sending up his persona that he established in Carpenter's previous films. Unlike Snake Plissken or R. J. MacReady, Jack Burton is a moron. In a given situation, he believes that he is the most capable person in the room, but in reality he is the closest to a circus clown the film has. I would be willing to bet that his character was a breath of fresh air in the 1980s, when every single action hero had everything under control at any given moment. He even spends entire battles knocked out on the ground or fumbling around for a weapon, while the actual men take care of business.
I first learned about this movie when I was much younger and reading Maddox's website voraciously. He posted an extremely negative review of the first Lord of the Rings film, in which he objected to the fact that the film did not have enough Lo Pan in it. Having actually seen Big Trouble in Little China, I agree that Lo Pan is a pretty ridiculous villain, delightfully played by Hong. In fact, his very presence is a microcosm of the incongruity of Carpenter's success at the time. Lo Pan is made up within an inch of his life, regardless of what form he takes. And typically when he is on screen, he is accompanied by spectacular special effects, that mostly hold up even even today, 30 years later. But at the same time, Lo Pan is an invention that would never be seen in current movies. He is simply too goofy, when most movie villains in big blockbusters (this one had a budget of roughly the equivalent $50 million dollars today) have to be doomsday devices played by accomplished European actors. Lo Pan feels like the sort of creature that the young boy who writes the Axe Cop web comics would come up with in the middle of a sugar-infused rant.
The film is still very much part of the tradition of maximalist action cinema that was in vogue in the 1980s. Although the movie has a sense of irony, it is still not on the level of a masterpiece like RoboCop in terms of its function as satire. Big Trouble in Little China mostly operates in a vacuum, engaging in nothing having to do with the real world or anything of intellectual interest. That's not what you look for when you come to a popcorn movie like this, however. I understand that. But that doesn't mean that I have to like this more than a film with something actually on its mind.