Big Trouble in Little China reunites director John Carpenter with Kurt Russell, a collaboration that got off to a flying start with the TV-movie Elvis, in which Russell’s remarkable impersonation of Presley really launched the former Disney child star into a new career.
After Elvis, the two teamed up for Escape from New York and The Thing, a pair of unsatisfying thrillers. Now they’re back together with a much livelier outing; Big Trouble in Little China finds the two of them completely in sync. That’s lucky, because with far-out material such as this, it’s sync or swim.
Russell, who’s been steadily improving in recent years, has never been this loose or comically heroic. He plays a beefy, slightly dim-witted truck driver who delivers a regular load in San Francisco’s Chinatown one night, gets into an all-hours poker game, and somehow is drawn into the disorienting search for a missing girl in Chinatown’s netherworld.
This world is pretty outrageous. Carpenter throws in all sorts of vaulting kung fu action, a Tong war, booby-traps, a mysterious Chinese potion (which prompts an intoxicated Russell, upon drinking it, to good-naturedly observe that he feels, “Kinda—I dunno—kinda invincible”), human sacrifice, and a 2,000-year-old dude who needs the blood of a green-eyed bride to restore him.
As that grocery list might suggest, the tone of Big Trouble is largely comic. Somehow Carpenter avoids making fun of the material—that’s a big booby-trap in itself—so that the tongue-in-cheek tone has the flavor of Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than outright parody.
The kung fu fighting is blown out of proportion, but Carpenter keeps a lot of stuff honest. Near the beginning, there’s a kidnap scene at the airport that quivers with a sense of impending danger and claustrophobia, which the movie’s subsequent jokey tone can’t quite erase.
The goofiness probably keeps it from being anything great or memorable, but it certainly makes for a rowdy fun time. Carpenter and his actors establish an almost immediate audience rapport, sustained by the clever direction and the script. The screenplay bears the stamp of W.D. Richter, who wrote the keen update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers a few years ago.
Richter is credited with “adaptation” among the screenwriters, but it’s a good bet he’s responsible for much of the arch, ’40s-style dialogue. Much of Russell’s delivery, in which he spouts some he-man braggadocio, only to be immediately contradicted by the turn of events, is the ’40s movie adventurer given an appropriate ’80s twist.
Russell is splendid, and Carpenter gets the best work yet from Kim Cattrall, previously wasted in Porky’s and Turk 182!, and Kate Burton, the late Richard’s daughter. Cattrall plays a headstrong lawyer, Burton a naïve reporter—yes, yes, those sound like cliché “types,” but that’s the idea.
So Big Trouble in Little China joins this summer’s weirdly crowded circle of good-summer-entertainment-but-nothing-more films. It may be the most unbelievable, but it never lets that get in the way of the overriding party atmosphere.
First published in the Herald, July 6, 1986
Ha ha—”disorienting”—I kill myself. This movie didn’t cause much of a stir at the time, but it has become a cult picture, and for good reason, I think. And I really don’t find The Thing unsatisfying anymore. Will look for my Turk 182! review. By the way, this opened in Seattle at the Oak Tree, Alderwood Mall, and Grand Cinema, if anyone cares.