“When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: ‘Have ya paid your dues, Jack?’ ‘Yessir, the check is in the mail’.”
Hard to believe—for me anyway—that I’ve done over a hundred posts on this blog and have not yet written about Big Trouble in Little China, one of my all-time favorite films. It’s easily among the fifty or so movies that I include in my Top Ten. And I suppose if someone put a light sabre to my throat and ordered me to write down a real Top Ten, well…
Directed by John Carpenter, this 1986 “martial arts comedy” stars Kurt Russell as Jack Burton (a role for which both Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson were considered), a swaggering, tough-talking—often bumbling—truck driver whose numerous one- and two-liners merit many of their own websites all over the Internet. They are hilarious. After delivering a load of porkers to San Francisco’s Chinatown and gambling all night, Jack drives his friend Wang Chi to the airport to pick up his betrothed, Miao Yin, from the old country. When the girl is kidnapped by a gang called the Lords of Death, Jack and Wang follow them into the heart of Chinatown, where they find themselves in the middle of a gang war. They also encounter the supernatural Three Storms, called Thunder, Rain, and Lightning, along with their leader, the sorcerer Lo Pan. They escape, but Jack’s truck is stolen, and he’s pissed.
Jack and Wang enlist the help of Wang’s friend Eddie, a lawyer named—I kid you not—Gracie Law (a pre-Sex and the City Kim Cattrall), and a good sorcerer named Egg Shen (the late, great Victor Wong). They first try to rescue Miao Yin from a brothel (Russell is a hoot as a nerdy “customer”), but she is carried off by one of the Storms.
Next stop: an import warehouse used by Lo Pan as a front. (Wang asks, “Are you ready, Jack?” He replies, in his John Wayne voice, “I was born ready.”) They are captured and taken to Lo Pan, who in his earthly form is a wizened, wheelchair-bound old man named David. A victim of an ancient curse, Lo Pan needs to marry—and
sacrifice—a girl with green eyes to break it, and Miao Yin—yep, she has green eyes. (“I’m supposed to buy this shit?” Jack says. “Two thousand years, he can’t find one broad to fit the bill? Come on, Dave, you must be doing something seriously wrong!”)
Their friends are also captured, but soon all of them escape—all but Gracie, who is abducted by a monster. Lo Pan discovers that Gracie also has green eyes. He decides to marry both women, sacrifice Gracie and live out his life with Miao Yin.
But not if Jack can help it, given that he has the hots for Gracie. He returns with his friends via a weird underground passage, this time with Egg Shen and a gang of “good guys” called the Chang Sing. They all drink a concoction mixed by Egg Shen, which, according to Jack, makes him feel “kind of invincible.” In an ensuing fight scene Jack
fires an automatic weapon over his head and is immediately knocked unconscious by a chunk of rubble, missing a good deal of the battle. But he recovers, the Storms and Lo Pan are destroyed, Wang gets Miao Yin, and Jack gets…his truck back.
As Jack prepares to leave Chinatown, his friends are incredulous that he’s not staying with Gracie, or taking her with him. As he says, “Sooner or later I rub everyone the wrong way.” He hits the road, unaware that one of Lo Pan’s monsters has hitched a ride.
That last scene appeared to be a setup for a sequel, but it never happened. I’d always wondered why, since the film became a cult classic, and I’ve seldom met anyone who didn’t love it. But my research revealed a shocker: Big Trouble in Little China bombed at the box office. There were production issues galore, and among other things the screenplay had to be totally redone. In the original script the movie was a western that took place in 1880s San Francisco. Still, this shouldn’t have had anything to do with the film’s popularity—though it took a decade or more to start winning over the critics who panned it in 1986.
Ah, who cares? I have my DVD copy, and I’ll continue to enjoy it at least once a year, forever. As ol’ Jack Burton says, “What the hell.”