Scores of cult films are pleasing to watch for all the wrong reasons. Like so many reality TV producers have figured out, everyone loves witnessing a good train wreck.
Whether because of a clueless scriptwriter, director, or cast, movies that are “so bad they’re good” make people laugh out of sheer embarrassment and surprise that the project was finished and distributed in the first place.
Big Trouble in Little China is not one of these movies. Yes, the plot is absurd and the script is corny and often utilitarian, but every frame of this film received special love and attention. Men like John Carpenter put films together quickly and efficiently, but they also know how to inject some flavor in the process.
Because of Carpenter’s skill and style, I could literally watch this movie five times in a row and not be bored. In fact, I’d probably notice something new every time and love it even more than I already did.
The workman-like care that went into Big Trouble in Little China shines through in the costumes, the sets, the special effects, and even the lighting; every single shot is lit to evoke a tone of light-hearted but exciting adventure. Also, the editing pieces together shots so expertly that – despite a plot that is close to utter nonsense– every action and consequence is clear and explicit.
Things like lighting and editing might be a bit too esoteric to the average viewer, though; when they’re done well they’re not supposed to be noticeable at all. So, rather than focus on the minor technical details, let’s focus on the factors that every audience member can appreciate. Namely…
A reasonable guy experiencing some very unreasonable things
Our protagonist, Jack Burton, subverts every notion of a traditional hero. Yes, he’s tough, wise-cracking, keeps his cool under pressure, and sports the greatest mullet this side of Kevin Bacon in Tremors. Also, that tank top. Would you just look at how glorious that tank top is?
Yet, I wouldn’t describe most of the things that Jack does as “valiant.” He’s not as capable as he wants to seem, making him hilarious and pitiable, but he’s still admirable as a font of self-confidence and wit.
He also takes himself way more seriously than anyone else does, and he constantly needs to have things explained to him. Jack’s cluelessness not only drives the plot, but it’s one of his most endearing qualities. In terms of scriptwriting, he’s Ellen Page but with muscles and a mullet.
To make up for Jack’s ineptitude as well as his ignorance, his partner Wang Chi has all the plot information at his disposal. The audience usually gets some giggles as Jack is spoon-fed information with a puzzled look on his face.
Wang knows all the right moves to boot. Jack is useless in most fights, and he usually has something to keep him busy while Wang does all the ass kicking. The two times Jack does manage to take someone out, it seems more like luck, but it could just be Jack’s favorite maxim coming true – “It’s all in the reflexes”
Carpenter’s decision to “flip” the lead protagonists’ roles makes the film much less tired and predictable than most action movies. Jack’s erratic and inconsistent leadership abilities make a scene incredibly rewarding when he does something badass, unexpectedly pulling through.
That’s how it always begins. Very small.
Jack’s adorable ignorance works so well because the script once again flips typical expectations. Most high-concept, effects-driven movies nowadays start with a bizarre, supernatural occurrence to hook in the audience. Then the phenomena are gradually explained and the weirdness dissipates. Big Trouble in Little China, on the other hand, seems content with putting the audience farther and farther out of their depth as the run-time increases.
Not counting the cold opening intro, the film holds off on the supernatural at first. The first sign of conflict comes when Jack accompanies Wang to the airport to pick up Wang’s fiancee, Miao Yin. There, he and Wang are accosted by a no-nonsense street gang, “The Lords of Death,” who kidnap Miao Yin.
Jack and Wang pursue the Lords of Death into a remote corner of San Francisco’s Chinatown, only to find themselves smack dab in the middle of a Chinese gang war. Karate chops, impalings, and gunshots ensue, all while Jack and Wang look on helplessly.
Then the Three Storms show up. That is, three Chinese, kung-fu wizards descend from the sky, display elemental powers such as wind and lightening, and then, to paraphrase Jack, proceed to “fly around on wires cutting everyone to shreds.”
When Jack gets his trademark “Wuh?” face going, Wang decides to scream, for once, “No time to explain!” They retreat in Jack’s truck, only to run into Lo Pan, a ten-foot tall, undead Chinese sorcerer.. with LIGHT coming out his mouth!
From there it only gets more ridiculous. After several more linking scenes, Jack and Wang decide to infiltrate Lo Pans hideout, the Wing Kong Exchange. Booby traps, kidnappings, and gunfights occur, but after a heroic escape the crew realizes that Miao Yin is still missing.
Thus, they go back to the Wing Kong with an army of Chinese gang members, and there even more monsters show up. The most ludicrous and infinitely entertaining actions scenes are contained in this climax. Audiences may not get it, but Lo Pan assures them that “You are not brought upon this world to get it!”
See things no one else can see, do things no one else can do
This film’s special effects are also mind-blowingly good. The insane plot and larger-than-life characters all service countless effects-driven scenes that still manage to impress me to this day. Using simple tricks like matting, makeup, stop-motion, and hundreds of amazing practical effects, the film creates sequences that are dazzling and memorable.
It feels almost like an incredible video game. I’ve already covered how Big Trouble in Little China has influenced countless video games, but the film also exudes game-like qualities of its own.
Often, movie critics compare films to video games as a pejorative for consequence-free action scenes that have little dramatic tension and even less restraint. In this film, however, the video game qualities stem from the excitement one manages to feel during the implausible scenarios.
The film also constantly provides something new and shocking to marvel at as it unfolds. Lo Pan’s wedding scene and the subsequent battle both take place in a neon underworld after Jack’s crew has just imbibed a potion that grants supernatural abilities. Flying occurs, monsters get stabbed, and Lo Pan clashes with the charming mystic Egg Shen in a virtual battle of egos. It even looks like Lo Pan is beta testing Ninendo’s latest interactive controller device.
Big Trouble in Little China thus constantly ups the ante in terms of entertainment value. Jack’s one-liners fly, gags get funnier, and the body count racks up so much that by the end of the film you’ll be breathless.
John Carpenter even made his own music for the soundtrack, which stands out as one of the most memorable synth scores of the 80s. It is, at turns, playfully minimalistic and outright rockin. Also, the theme song video by his band The Coupe DeVilles is priceless.
So if you’re looking for a great movie to show everyone while they sit around drunk this Fourth of July weekend, look no further than this priceless 80s gem from John Carpenter. I promise it won’t make a lick of sense, but you’ll learn to enjoy yourself and not care.
Also, Jack and Wang give, without a doubt, what is the best toast ever uttered onscreen or in real life. So, as you raise your glasses this Independence Day, if no one can think of anything to say, then just repeat these lines:
Wang: “Here’s to the Army and Navy, and the battles they have won; here’s to America’s colors, the colors that never run.”
Jack: “May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.”
Jarrod Lipshy is a BA English graduate and freelance content writer. He collects old video games, and was shown amazing, cheesy movies by his dad at a young age. He also has a cat he happened to name Miao Yin.