This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “Big Trouble in Little China.”
The Movie: “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986)
Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, James Hong
Director: John Carpenter
Plot Summary: (From Netflix) When an ancient magician kidnaps his friend’s fiancee, a two-fisted trucker and a sexy attorney must navigate a shadowy realm to capture the culprit.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 84 percent
Brown: Seeing that last week’s movie, “Terminator Genisys” should have stayed in the 80s, I figured it was apropos to go with an actual 80s action movie that won’t get ruined by modern-day cinema, “Big Trouble in Little China.”
*Checks Google, sees “Big Trouble” remake in the works with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson*
I also wanted to pick this movie because this is my brother Brandon’s favorite movie. He went as far as to say it was better than “The Godfather.” I’m unwilling to go that far.
With that said, Froemming, what are your initial thoughts before we jump into this tale of kung-fu action and Chinese mysticism?
Froemming: This was one of my favorite films growing up. Having said that, since I have not seen it since probably 1989, I remembered almost nothing from it. So revisiting it was like watching it for the first time again (sort of). And I will say this, it certainly has aged very well, especially the special effects. So, let’s start this off!
It begins with Egg Shen speaking to his lawyer about Jack Burton (Russell). I bring this up for two reasons. One, I did not remember this scene at all. And two, it is not connected at all with the rest of the film. It was very baffling.
Brown: I think it connected with the film just to show that we were going to see some weird stuff once Egg Shen broke out the Chinese black magic (only a tad racist). And as I’m sure you and I thought many times during this film, everyone is pretty much a thunder god. Therefore, everyone is Raiden from “Mortal Kombat.”
Froemming: I did some investigating after watching this and you know what? The creators of “Mortal Kombat” admit they ripped Raiden off from this movie. I must have written it down a hundred times watching it.
Brown: Well I hope Jack Burton helped in the creation of Johnny Cage then, because we meet Jack and he’s an ass the entire movie. Right down to his introduction where he’s talking to himself (I assume, because we hear no chatter) on the CB radio in his big rig. At first, I thought I picked “Over the Top” on my Netflix instead of “Big Trouble.” And once I realized I picked the right film, I asked myself how much the trucker community must hate Jack Burton because he does not shut up on that radio.
Froemming: Oh, you know he is hopped up on cheap truck stop speed. That’s why he wears his sunglasses at night — his eyes are probably bulging right out of his skull.
So, Jack stops in Chinatown to do some gambling, which looked a lot like Frank Reynolds’ Chinese gambling ring in “It’s Always Sunny.”
Brown: Doesn’t Jack have some more deliveries to make? This is going to be a constant point for me throughout this entire film: I hated Jack Burton. Kurt Russell as the wise-cracking action star doesn’t do it for me. Now, when he’s a soft-spoken, brooding hard-ass like in “Escape from New York,” I love him. But this… this didn’t do it for me.
Froemming: He also does a pretty awful John Wayne impression throughout this film. But, Jack isn’t the hero of this film, Wang Chi is. He is Jack’s gambling go-to in Chinatown. And he is a terrible gambler, because he thinks he can split a glass bottle in half with a rusty old machete for money.
Brown: He’s also a love-sick puppy who needs to pick up his fiancee Miao, who is flying over from China. And she has a special quality: She’s a Chinese girl with green eyes, which I guess is like finding a unicorn. I don’t know, biology wasn’t my subject in high school. If I’m Jack Burton, I’m thinking to myself, “Why am I doing favors for a guy who owes me a bunch of money? Go pick up your own wife. I need to make deliveries and do my job like a grown man.” But nope, he’s blowing off work to go play taxi.
Froemming: I’m not sure about the green eyes thing either. But this is a John Carpenter film, so I just go with the flow.
So Jack and Wang are at the airport, and Jack sees Kim Cattrall standing around being the horrible actress that she is, and decides to flirt with her. Because this is an 80s flick, some baddies show up to kidnap Wang’s fiancee. And I swear that these bad guys are the template for how modern hipsters dress.
Brown: Being in the post-9/11 world, I was mystified in that scene about seeing baddies show up to the airport with switchblades, swords AND guns. You could get away with anything in the 80s!
And now the chase is on to rescue Miao, who got abducted by the ruffians. And for some reason Gracie (Cattrall) is there to help as well. But when they get back to Chinatown, we see a couple gangs about to rumble, much like the mobsters v. Yakuza fight from “The Simpsons.” Then, some stuff goes down.
Froemming: Yes, and we briefly encounter Minneapolis’ own James Hong as David Lo Pan as he emerges out of nowhere and gets run over by Jack’s truck like a suicidal deer, only to not be killed and his face becomes a giant flashlight, blinding and baffling an already confused Jack.
Now, I love Hong in this role, but he will forever be the host at the Chinese restaraunt on “Seinfeld” to me. I also saw him at the Minneapolis Comic Con two years ago.
Brown: A couple things before we move on from this gangland fight. First, one of the gangs come in with sticks as its main weapon. Then, the other gang come in with machine guns. This fight was over before it began. Then, when the Raiden-like threesome known as “The Three Storms” (Thunder, Rain and Lightning) enter the fray, the two gangs unite and the machine guns have been replaced with 2x4s. Wait, what?
Finally, because it brought me so much joy in this movie… our main villain is a sorcerer named David?! It’s pretty much the joke from “Kung Pow: Enter the Fist” where the antagonist wants everyone to call him Betty.
At this point, I was fully invested in this movie. Maybe not for the right reasons, but I was in.
Froemming: This is the movie where John Carpenter went 100 percent on going balls-out weird, and that’s saying something for the guy who gave us “Halloween” and “Escape from New York.”
After David (I will call him that because it is more funny than Lo Pan) and his crew blind Jack and take off, Jack has a new problem: His truck. His truck goes missing, causing him to deal with the most evil sorcerery known to man: Insurance companies.
Brown: Here we find out, poorly, from Gracie that Miao is being put into a brothel to be used as a sex worker. Their solution for freeing her is having Jack, the most unlikable character of the group, go into said brothel dressed as Col. Mustard to try and get the Asian girl with green eyes. But, this plan is thwarted by the Storms, who destroy the brothel like a “Ghostbusters” creature to take the girl to David’s (hehehe) hideout.
Something I want to mention quick is when Jack is getting the situation explained to him by Gracie (who gives an exposition dump. Show, don’t tell, movie), Jack talks about how time is money to a guy like him and he needs his truck back. Yeah Jack, if time was money to you, you would have already left Chinatown to make more deliveries instead of gambling with a bunch of locals, you degenerate.
Froemming: I’m glad you brought it up, because I wrote in my notes that this film is probably 75 percent exposition. I mean all the characters do is explain things for us, which was really distracting at times.
Well, since the brothel caper didn’t work, now they have to go to David’s bank to save the girl. So how do they penetrate the most evil spirit walking the Earth’s compound? They walk right in and pretend they are electricians or something and talk really loudly at one another. David needs better security than those bozos at the front desk.
Brown: Well, when you have the Storms acting as security, you can have minimum-wage dullards at the front desk. Wang and Jack are subdued by one of them (Wikipedia says it was Rain. Sure, why not?) and we find out David’s (hehehe) plan: He needs a green-eyed girl to break a curse where his body becomes more decrepit. Not only does he have to marry her, David (hehehe) must also sacrifice her.
And a twist: Gracie also has green eyes, so she’s also fair game for David (hehehe). He can marry Miao and sacrifice Gracie. Have your cake and eat it too, folks.
Froemming: So, he could have just married any woman with green eyes this whole time to break the curse? OK, whatever….
Brown: Quick Google search, apparently only two percent of the world’s population has green eyes.
Froemming: He is like 2,000 years old. He had more than enough time.
But now begins what became a wildly popular concept in 80s cinema: Adventures in subterranean locations. If it worked for “The Goonies” then, dammit, it will work here as well! Well, almost to that. Jack and Wang save a bunch of sex workers before this. Then team up with Egg (whom we met at the very beginning of the film). Then they go on an underground adventure in search of
One-Eyed Willy Miao and Gracie.
Brown: Yeah, while Wang and his friend Eddie are fighting off one of the Storms, being the true heroes of the movie, Jack takes the glory by freeing all the women from their cells. Glory hog. Also, if you’re going to shoot locks on jail cells to free the sex workers, actually aim the gun! I realize this was the days of “Contra” on Nintendo where you just run and shoot. You’re not a video game, Jack Burton. This requires precision.
Froemming: It was how things were done back then. Nobody had to aim guns in the 80s, just point in the general direction and pull the trigger. The rest took care of itself.
Now, as these guys are preparing to go underground to get to David, we see that Miao and Gracie are in some sort of magical trance, or because this was the 1980s, probably stoned on Quaaludes. But, we see Gracie is only partly under the spell/drugs? Her awakening and going back into a trance made little sense to me.
Brown: What made little sense to me is how all the escapees, Wang, Eddie, Jack and Gracie weren’t all captured during their great escape. They jump into a pool that has a “Shawshank Redemption”-like drainage pipe where Jack and Gracie end up making out. Couldn’t the bad guys just have dived into said pool and drainage pipe and caught up with this slow-moving gaggle of people?
And not only this, but then we see Gracie get kidnapped by what looks like the love child of Harry the sasquatch and the Predator. I think this monster was later used as Rahzar in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze.”
Froemming: OK, I loved this creature and moment. It came out of left field to me, because at this point only David was supernatural. Now we have monsters in the mix. Because John Carpenter is awesome and gave zero (redacted).
Now here is another favorite moment: Egg’s way into the underworld is via fireman’s pole like in the 60s “Batman” show. It was ridiculous.
Brown: The whole ceremony with Gracie and Miao was equally ridiculous. They get this weird karate demo from the Storms and then fall into a trance. Then they are both lifted to the ceiling and David (hehehe) wants to marry both because they are touching a light fixture? That’s sexist. My social justice warrior sirens were blaring.
Froemming: Nah, it was the Quaaludes that put them in a trance. The Storms were just showing off. But David wants both of them, like a creepy polygamist. This is Chinatown, David, not Utah.
Brown: Right before we see Jack Burton and co. reach the wedding ceremony, they are confronted by some potato-looking thing? This is where I think the audience was given the same Quaaludes that Gracie and Miao also received.
Froemming: It looked like Krang from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” but with eyeballs in his mouth. It was amazing. This potato-Krang hybrid is David’s eyes in this underground world. But this thing didn’t expect a trigger-happy Jack Burton. I swear, Jack just shoots his way out of everything.
Brown: Jack Burton has a horseshoe up his ass! When they get into the big final group battle, you see Jack hit the floor. Then he just so happens to kill one of the bad guys because they walk into his boot! He may as well have been swinging his arms saying “If I hit you, it’s your OWN fault.”
Then at the climax, Jack drops this line where he says “You know what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like this? … Ol’ Jack always says ‘What the hell?’” Jack Burton should say in all instances “Do the work for me, friends!”
Oh Jack Burton… you are so rugged and useless.
Froemming: Now, Jack does get something right. In his battle with David, David whips a knife at him and, because Jack has amazing reflexes he never uses except this one time (and briefly at the beginning of the film with the bottle), is able to quickly grab the knife and whip it back right into David’s skull. It is pretty cool, but very anti-climactic. I wanted David to do more weird, magical crap, but we get what we get.
Brown: The whole scene at the beginning with Jack catching the bottle was the showcase of his cat-like reflexes. It was one of the weirdest examples of a “Chekhov’s Gun” that I’ve seen. But for as much crap as I’ve given Jack Burton in this movie, I did enjoy this callback.
Froemming: They also kill the Three Storms as well. Well, Thunder just kind of gets so mad that he literally explodes on his own before he can get his revenge on Jack and co.
It truly is just a weird scene, but incredibly funny.
Brown: I was cracking up when Thunder started expanding. I thought he was becoming Weird Al’s character in the “Fat” music video.
During the final escape, we see Lightning try to get the final drop on Jack by attacking him (and somehow having flames go after Jack from behind. Demigods don’t follow the laws of physics, I suppose). The final Storm is defeated when after Jack climbs up a rope that Egg is holding onto, the two drop a Buddha statue on him. This stone/clay Buddha also causes an explosion because why not?
Froemming: That Buddha statue was probably bought at the same place Wile E. Coyote purchases his items to catch the Roadrunner. And frankly, that’s how the final Storm goes out, like that sad, never-learning-from-experience Wile E. But hey, the day is saved and we learn that Egg is now going to go on a vacation! And if the beginning of this movie is any indication, Egg vacations at his lawyer’s office.
Brown: Don’t forget in the final escape that Jack finds his one true love: His truck, complete with naked woman in the grille. And when the time comes at the end of the movie where Gracie is clearly in love with him and wants to have a relationship with the man, what does he do? He leaves.
Not only does Jack leave, we see him back on the CB radio ranting like a televangelist to no one and drinking on the job. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen!
Froemming: Not only does he leave Gracie, he is a giant jerk about it too. Who needs the affection of another human being when you can gobble speed, booze it up and rant into a CB radio while on the job? Jack Burton has truly found his calling in life. But we get a little sequel baiting, because we see the giant orange monster is on his truck. I wish they would have made a sequel to this film, but the experience of making this big budget film really jaded Carpenter, and thus we never got one.
Brown: And with that, we should hop on our big rig and get to recommendations.
Would You Recommend?
Brown: All things considered, this is a fun, schlocky 80s movie that I’d have no problem watching again. It’s not close to my favorite John Carpenter movie (that goes to “Escape from New York,” followed by “They Live”) and I find Jack Burton annoying. Everything else is a pretty good time for a higher-budgeted B-movie.
Froemming: It is a fun movie. I enjoyed it more when I was a kid than as an adult, though. You got Kurt Russell in his prime, the special effects hold up incredibly well and it is a fun movie. Also, it is a John Carpenter film, so you have his sense of humor in it as well. I would recommend this.