John Carpenter’s amalgamation of action / adventure / comedy / fantasy is a loving, send up of a martial arts films. John Carpenter directs frequent collaborator Kurt Russell in their 4th partnership together following Elvis (1979 TV Movie), Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing (1982). Kurt Russell is clearly playing it for laughs channeling a screwy version of John Wayne. It’s a performance rooted firmly in camp. “I’m a reasonable guy, but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things,“ he says at one point. In fact he’s frequently prone to casting witty one liners that sound more like catchphrases than actual dialogue. And that’s just fine because the whole production is ridiculously over the top.
Big Trouble in Little China is focused on a colorful cast of characters. Where else can you go toe to toe with a villain that will blind you by staring into his glowing eyes or the energy blasts from his mouth? Those powers are embodied in evil sorcerer Lo Pan memorably played by James Hong. He’s flanked by The Three Storms (Rain, Thunder and Lightning) lesser sorcerers who look like they’re wearing huge lamp shades on their heads. Their first appearance is a wonderful showdown that combines two warring gangs: the Wing Kong, commanded by Lo Pan and the Chang Sings (the “good” guys). I’ve never seen or heard so many thunderclaps and animated lightning bolts discharging from people’s hands. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention those bizarre creatures. Words cannot accurately describe one I’ll simply call the Floating Eyeball Monster. It must be seen to be truly appreciated.
At times the narrative is a bit disjointed and difficult to follow. There are a lot of personalities highlighted in the story. It’s definitely one of those movies that improves on repeated viewings since it’s hard to process everything that’s happening. (I watched it twice before writing this review.) The confusing kidnapping scene at the airport feels like it was edited with a hacksaw. Also why does Lo Pan want to become a flesh and blood man when he’s so much more powerful as an immortal? But in the end, none of that really matters because this is a picture that aims to simply entertain and largely succeeds. The tone is goofily tongue in cheek with many laughs sprinkled throughout sensational action sequences. I think the film’s purpose is best encapsulated in this exchange:
Jack Burton: Somebody tell me what is going on!
Wang Chi: The truth?
Jack Burton: I can take it.
Wang Chi: We don’t know.