Dumb White Man
John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China has fun with an old racist trope
If you want to enjoy Big Trouble in Little China the correct way, listen to its director, John Carpenter, and star, Kurt Russell, who will cheerfully tell you that the man you might assume is the hero — intrepid trucker Jack Burton (Russell) — is actually the film’s idiot sidekick. The real hero is Jack’s friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), who has the movie’s true heroic arc. Wang’s fiancée Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) has been kidnapped, and he must rescue her. Jack kind of tags along because Wang owes him money and, later, because his truck is stolen and he wants it back. So while Wang goes forward and drives the plot, Jack muscles in and talks like John Wayne and occasionally manages not to shit the bed completely.
Big Trouble in Little China started out as a period Western with martial-arts flavor — something like the later Shanghai Noon, possibly — but was modernized by script doctor W.D. Richter (Buckaroo Banzai), and ended up as both an homage to and example of mystical chop-socky. Audiences in 1986 were simply not ready for it, and it tanked badly in theaters before gaining, like some of Carpenter’s other “failures,” an eager cult on home video. Today it’s generally viewed as a precursor to the cinema of actor-director Stephen Chow, fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, and everything else made possible in the wake of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The plot is basically an explosion in a clown factory. It needs near-constant exposition, as much to keep us up to speed as to get Jack’s head on straight — he almost never knows what’s going on. He’s the Dumb White Man at sea in Chinatown, where the local customs are bizarre and incomprehensible to him. The narrative is almost a parody of “Asian inscrutability.” The gist of it is that Miao Yin, along with another, possibly mixed-race woman named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), have been captured so that they can be married off to the 2000-year-old sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong), because the women both have green eyes and this is vital to lift the curse that keeps Lo Pan decrepit and/or an incorporeal spirit. You can kind of see why Jack says “Huh?” a lot.
Various superpowered minions of Lo Pan’s show up and do their elemental specialties. Monsters lurch into the frame, mostly unexplained. Yet Big Trouble in Little China is a comedy — a giggly, jostling adventure that sneers in the face of logic. I’m not sure why a reporter (Kate Burton) is around at all, other than to give Gracie someone to talk to and pass the Bechdel Test. Pretty much everyone in the movie is there to aid or frustrate Wang Chi’s goal; Jack frequently does one or the other, sometimes both at once. Carpenter and his favored cinematographer Dean Cundey (doing his fifth and final work for Carpenter) keep the action colorful and bright, even when rain pours down; a more poetic title for the movie might be Blue Lightning, Red Gowns, after the magic weapon of one villain and the dresses Gracie and Miao Yin wear during Lo Pan’s ceremony. This PG-13 film, despite its frequent shooting and bashing and swordplay, is also completely bloodless except for the blood-draw in the aforementioned ceremony.
The movie contains as well the single drop-dead funniest moment in all of Carpenter’s filmography, one that Kurt Russell can’t even get through talking about without guffawing. I won’t give it away. But watch not only for an ill-advised show of boisterous force but for a shot a few seconds later of “our hero” missing all the fun. Big Trouble in Little China was significantly before its time in more ways than one: it was a goofily meta satire in an era of mostly fearfully sincere action (think of Stallone and Schwarzenegger and Eastwood), razzing tropes that American audiences hadn’t yet been taught to question. Kurt Russell is front and center on the burnished Drew Struzan poster; I don’t think Dennis Dun is anywhere on there at all. But you know what they say about judging a book by its cover. Snickering all the way, Carpenter and Russell suckered audiences into sitting down for a White Savior action picture but gave them a moron who only wins in the end because of “reflexes.”