There can be no question: this weekend’s pairing of John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China with W. D. Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension is, literally and hyperbolically, the single greatest film event in the history of Minnesota. Do not miss either of these under any circumstances.
Review of Big Trouble in Little China by Aaron Vehling.
When John Carpenter and Kurt Russell came together to make films in the 80s and 90s, audiences would witness either a campy, genuine classic, like Escape from New York, or a campy car crash from which they could not remove their gaze. Big Trouble in Little China, falls in that second category. It’s a bizarre and cheesy martial arts fantasy film, but one you have to watch because it is a whole lot of fun.
There is an onslaught of martial arts gangs and hideous creatures polluting the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. There are exploits of practitioners of Chinese black magic and even some ostensible human trafficking–a 2,000 year old quasi-corporeal sorcerer steals a guy’s fiancee because he has to marry a green-eyed woman so he can become flesh again. But also in the air is a tale that contemplates the responsibility of power, the enduring influence of obsession and the redemptive quality of teamwork in the face of adversity.
Gluing all that together is some of the best dialogue this side of Shane Black.
Kurt Russell, playing the plebeian protagonist Jack Burton, waxes poetically into a CB radio in his semi truck like someone’s drunk uncle at Thanksgiving: “Just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, ‘Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.’”
The antagonist in this flick, the sorcerer Lo Pan (Minneapolis-born James Hong), often disguises himself as a withered old man when he isn’t walking through walls, expelling electrical pulses and kidnapping women to turn them into hookers. He appears to have his hand in some good old-fashioned political corruption, too. I mean, he must: His vast subterranean lair underneath Chinatown seems to have escaped the attention of the city’s public works department. What happens if they have to televise the water mains? What if those annoying pencil-pushers in the transit department decide to expand the Muni?
Jack is just as puzzled as we are: “All I know is, this Lo Pan character comes out of thin air in the middle of a goddamn alley while his buddies are flying around on wires cutting everybody to shreds, and he just stands there waiting for me to drive my truck straight through him with light coming out of his mouth!”
The only reason Jack was even pulled into this mess was because he won a bet. He and Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) are long-time pals (read: gambling buddies) who seem to engage in all-night benders with some other working-class dudes in Chinatown whenever Jack comes to town to make deliveries. Wang can’t pay him right away, but asks Jack to drive him to the airport to pick up his fiancee Miao Yin (Penthouse Pet Suzee Pai) coming in from China. Then he’ll pay him.
The problem is that when they get to the airport, Jack tries to be a hero. Lo Pan’s nasty Chinese gang tries to kidnap a woman to sell into sex slavery, but Jack intervenes. So they take Miao instead. Jack and Wang go after them, and end up in some back-alley funeral procession in Chinatown, where they get in the middle of an epic (and beautifully choreographed) battle between two rival gangs. Jack then hits Lo Pan with his semi, which only serves to make Lo Pan angry.
Jack’s truck is stolen and so starts the mystical adventure that will take Jack and Wang into the often glitzy underbelly of Chinatown, where they will encounter about 1,000 black belts, a hideous type of Sasquatch creature and a floating shit monster with scores of eyes, among other things. Joining them are Gracie (Kim Cattrall in green contacts), the friend of the original woman the gang wanted to kidnap, and a Chinese gang that practices good magic, including the amiable sorcerer Egg Shen (Victor Wong). Their adventure will culminate in amazing displays of cosmic comeuppance, desecration of sacred imagery and a rather sinister blend of misogyny and violations of state and federal labor laws.
Big Trouble bombed and was mostly panned when it hit theatres in 1986, but has in the last 28 years become a crucial part of the Carpenter catalogue. Russell, Hong, Dun and Wong all play the film for what it is, mainly a featherweight piece of enjoyment that never takes itself too seriously.
Russell certainly helps Carpenter with that. He has proven over the years he can excel in comedies. Big Trouble is playful, sure, but it’s also a blatant satire of the tropes in martial arts films, action films in general and the atmosphere of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning In America.” It is cheesy, ludicrous and brilliant all the same, just like America. Or, as Wang put it as he drank a magic potion (probably amphetamines) just before he and the crew set forth for the final battle, “Here’s to the Army and Navy and the battles they have won; here’s to America’s colors, the colors that never run.”
And here’s to Carpenter, that influential auteur who proves that art does not have to be a pained contemplation of the darkness inherent in humankind. Sometimes the audience just wants to have fun.
Aaron Vehling is a former journalist and current communications professional who loves the music of Johnny Jewel and the films of Lars von Trier. Though he’s from Longfellow, Minneapolis, he now lives in Harlem, New York, on the same block as the mansion from The Royal Tenenbaums.
Big Trouble in Little China screens Friday at 7:00, Saturday at 9:00, and Sunday at 7:00. Purchase tickets here. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai screens Friday at 9:00, Saturday at 7:00, and Sunday at 5:00. Purchase tickets here.