When reflecting on eighties action, it doesn’t take long for your mind to discharge aphorisms. Robust Yankee warriors annihilating endless swarms of natives to the clunking default setting of room-sized synthesisers. And then there was Kurt Russell: the buckled embodiment of the American Dream; the ‘Hell yeah’ guy, frequently playing the unassuming saviour of the universe like a working man’s Indiana Jones. Much like the era, his characters were arrogant blunderers that triumphed through trial and error. And that’s what he masters in John Carpenter’s madcap Big Trouble in Little China (1986).
Playing out like a hilariously well-made blooper, Carpenter’s cult classic positions Russell as the egotistical everyman truck driver, Jack Burton. Rolling into town like a slow-witted Dirty Harry, Burton finds himself besieged by outdated special effects, comic costume designs and bogus one-liners. Ensnared in the seedy clasps of San Francisco’s Chinatown, Burton faces the likes of street gangs, sorcerers, monsters, bandits, lightning, water, tight vests and seemingly everything else Carpenter had lying about on set. Here, Burton jokes his way through the underworld beneath Chinatown to save his friend’s green-eyed fiancée Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) from the demonic spellcaster David Lo Pan (James Hong).
While ‘mindless’ doesn’t even begin to surmise Carpenter’s end product, the movie’s abnormal scriptwriting coupled with Russell’s endless ability to amuse has made Big Trouble in Little China one of cinema’s most lovable flops ever made. Considering the film’s original thematic blueprint was for a western (the screenwriters crumbled under the decade’s excessive demand for big budget flamboyancy), how it got to become a modern day action-come-fantasy-come-martial arts spectacular will remain one of cinema’s unanswerable grey areas. Calling in Carpenter to renovate the narrative was as much of a blessing as it was the director’s darkest hour.
Following the film’s release, Carpenter’s dissatisfaction with the mainstream studio system saw him return to the reassuring comforts of independent moviemaking. But then, if it wasn’t for the director’s creative absurdity, Russell’s dumbo appeal, and everything else about Big Trouble in Little China that make it so ludicrous, it would have been lost in the annals of filmic failures. Over a quarter of a century since its initial release and we’re still referencing, quoting, laughing and forcing those who haven’t seen it to watch it. It’s the perfect ‘time capsule movie’ that enshrines every facet of eighties Hollywood, with all of its madcap erroneous imperfections in tow.