Like many film buffs, I have been a fan of John Carpenter for many years. My first exposure to Carpenter was when I saw The Fog with a bunch of friends one night in high school. I enjoyed it and thankfully that exposed me to The Thing, which I consider to be one of the best horror films ever made, with scenes so suspenseful, that watching them without context to the larger story can still create chills. Carpenter understands how to tell a story through visuals, editing, and sound, while never forgetting that it’s ultimately the characters that make a story and film work well.
One of Carpenter’s most entertaining films is Big Trouble in Little China, which I had the pleasure of watching for the first time recently. In true Carpenter fashion, it has a fun story and great set pieces, an entertaining turn by Kurt Russell as he gives a satirical John Wayne impression, and Kim Cattrall has some amazing line deliveries as the character Gracie Law. But there is very little in terms of character development or arc in this movie. I was still entertained throughout the film, grinning at every scene, but the joy and the humor presented in the film doesn’t mask the emptiness in a lot of the supporting roles.
The only time supporting characters are developed is when one character reveals something out of the blue through speech, very little character motivation or development is set up; new information about a person just appears randomly. When characters say that someone has a crush on some else, with no prior context, it breaks the momentum of the story. When characters are merely used as macguffins, such as Miao Lin, it’s tough to care. But this movie isn’t meant to be a classic story of heroes overcoming evil. It’s almost a satire, a slapstick parody of fantasy films.
That parody comes through Kurt Russell’s lead performance of Jack Burton. Although Jack is the main character, he isn’t the hero, that title belongs to Wang Chi. (On a tangent, I would love to have seen Jackie Chan in that role with his impeccable timing and charm as originally planned, though Dennis Dun is more than capable as Wang Chi.) Wang Chi is always on point and is never distracted from saving his love. He can fight with skill and wits, with his body and spirit as one. It’s Jack that knocks himself out before a fight. It’s Jack that misses a knife throw. It’s Jack that speeds backwards in a wheelchair, unintentionally taking out the evil henchmen. Jack is Wang’s sidekick, but he thinks he’s the hero. He’d be Han Solo if Han was more of a buffoon.
Although I complain about a lack of character development, I can’t but help enjoy this movie because of the silliness and palpable glee the filmmakers clearly had while making this movie. The movie is just so fun. The fight scenes are well choreographed, the special effects hold up nearly twenty years later and Jack Burton is a character easy to enjoy. The actors give it their all and there’s a sense of joy in this movie. Sure some things are strange, like a giant spider taking out a soldier, a magic potion that gets everyone high as if they are on ecstasy, and Lo Pan’s plan of having two brides doesn’t make much sense, but it’s big dumb fun. It’s not supposed to be taken seriously, particularly when a line such as “Okay. You people sit tight, hold the fort and keep the home fires burning. And if we’re not back by dawn… call the president” is spoken with a literal wink. A movie where my one main criticism is a lack of developed supporting characters but remains incredibly amusing clearly is doing something right, and I’m glad it does so.
Big Trouble in Little China is a pure 80s action high concept fantasy that could only be made in the studio system of the 80s, when studios would hire auteurs such as John Carpenter, and not directors with one indie hit under their belt. I’m glad Big Trouble in Little China lives on today as a beloved cult classic, even with some terrible or nonexistent character development, because it is one of those movies that are rare today: a movie about magic that actually feels magical.