Flying swordsmen? Chinese magic? Explosive martial arts battles? All this, plus a swaggering, wise-cracking Kurt Russell playing a parody of his popular “tough guy” character? What in God’s name is this movie?
That’s what American audiences and critics thought of director John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China when it hit theaters in 1986. To put it mildly, the movie tanked like an anvil pitched into a well. But in the years since, this flick has gathered the audience it deserves, and has in fact become a bona fide cult phenomenon. Fans even quote Jack Burton’s (Russell’s) lines to each other and buy replicas of the tank top he wore in the film (hint! hint!).
Perhaps this is all as it should be. Perhaps this was meant to be a cult film. After all, what other movie drops a modern American cowboy-type character into a mystical adventure involving rival Chinese gangs, kidnapped Chinese girls, martial arts battles in seedy alleyways, mutant gorillas and insectoid monsters, a centuries-old Chinese sorcerer, and three indestructible, supernatural Chinese warriors known as Thunder, Rain, and Lightning? No wonder American audiences and critics were confounded. Carpenter was showing them something completely new!
Or maybe not. Somebody like Jack Burton strutting his way through a Chinese fantasy world was indeed new, but that world itself was very, very old, and was in fact drawn from a venerable Chinese storytelling tradition known as wuxia (woo-sha). What an ironic shame it was that the same critics who in 1999 praised Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for introducing Western audiences to wuxia forgot that John Carpenter had already blown that door open 13 years earlier, only to have it slammed in his face.
Fortunately, the story ends well. Jack, Wang, Egg Shen, and the other good guys triumph over Lo Pan, the Wing Kong gang, and the other forces of evil. And Big Trouble in Little China triumphs over the forces of cultural ignorance to gain its rightful reputation as one hell of a bad-ass, revolutionary movie. In the end, John Carpenter can say along with Jack Burton, “We really shook the pillars of heaven, didn’t we?”