In Big Trouble in Little China, we follow truck driver Jack Burton—played by Kurt Russell doing a John Wayne impersonation cranked up to 11—as he visits some buddies in San Francisco’s Chinatown after a long haul. Before Burton knows it, he gets in over his head helping his pals battle a kung-fu god named Lo Pan, his three supernatural minions, an army of anonymous goons, an ogre of some kind and a floating eyeball full of eyeballs. The heroes of this world fight with lots of flashy martial arts, but also by throwing magical hand grenades, sword-fighting while flying through the air, shooting lightning from their fingertips, and blowing hurricane-force gusts of wind from their mouths. It all adds up to an adventure that is at times a total send-up of martial arts movie and action movie conventions, and yet, is also a fearless celebration of them. The movie shifts from slapstick to grotesque without the help of a clutch, and somehow, the whole thing is made better for it.
But there’s something else going on here, that elevates this movie above the crazy action, sarcastic humor and quotable lines. As the story gets rolling, we think that Jack is the heroic X factor that’s going to tip the scales in favor of good, but that’s not so. The farther this story develops, the more we realize that Jack doesn’t have a whole lot to offer here. He’s a rock-jawed caricature of American brawn and bravado in a world that requires nor respects either one. And as he struggles to impose his will on a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control, his frustration starts to show.
One minute, his truck was parked right outside, the next minute, it somehow disappears down a blind alley in a neighborhood that somehow is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and he is witnessing things that absolutely should not be real. This guy Lo Pan is supposedly an ancient sorcerer of incredible power, but every time Burton sees him, he’s just this old creep who claims to need to get with a hot green-eyed girl to secure immortality. Burton’s probably heard worse reasons, one imagines, but it still doesn’t help him understand what the hell is going on. Increasingly, his heroic smirk turns into a kind of blank look that suggests if everybody could just hold on for a minute, maybe he could start to make sense of things.
All of this comes to a head beautifully at the movie’s climax, when we have full-blown warfare between against Lo Pan and his army of minions, and Burton is once again caught in the middle. As the fighting breaks out, Burton is the only guy on the scene who can’t throw a kick or cast a spell. He does the next best thing and pulls out his TEC-9 and fires off a couple of shots into the air as he whoops and hollers. But before he can enter the fray, his shots dislodge some chunks from the ceiling, which fall and knock him out for most of the battle. What a dope.
It’s just a throwaway moment, really, followed up by another one in which Burton accidentally pins himself under the bulky corpse of the one guy he manages to kill during the entire battle. Burton survives this mess largely because of his own incompetence, which is a great subversion of our expectations. This lays us up for the moment of truth, when shortly afterwards, Burton bumps into Lo Pan himself, who is a bit perplexed to see Burton again. Shouldn’t have this guy died well before now?
Burton tries and to kill Lo Pan, and that fails, rather than do the hero thing and bravely await his fate, or scramble out of trouble, he just shoulders in like any ugly American and demands that Lo Pan at least explain what the hell is going on. Lo Pan gets so flustered by the moment that he never really gets his mojo back and by the end of the scene, Lo Pan is dead and Burton ain’t. Burton would tell you that it’s all in the reflexes, and after all we’ve witnessed, that’s probably as good an explanation as any.
There isn’t a lot to read into with this movie aside from some wuxia-flavored mayhem liberally spiced with Kurt Russell having fun playing a cowboy version of Snake Plissken, and the usual low-budget shenanigans that make a John Carpenter movie a John Carpenter movie. But the way Carpenter subverts our heroic expectations again and again with Burton is what makes this movie work for me, and seeing Lo Pan snap at the guy is a moment of truth. We could use a few more movies where the bad guy just hits his limit with the hero and tells him to shut up for a minute. He’s not meant to get it. He’s meant to get out of the way. He’s just too thick to know better, and somehow wins the day because of it. I can relate.