All aboard the Pork Chop Express as we return to 1986. A film was released that, failed at the box office, almost made director John Carpenter quit Hollywood, and turned a script from a western into a glorious mess of a film and the best mystical Chinese adventure ever. Lets take a deeper look at another of our formative films. Big Trouble In Little China.
This film gave us Kurt Russell at his best and refined a template for the clumsy, but ultimately successful hero pioneered by Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones. When thinking of 80’s action movies with Russell, you are automatically drawn to Escape from New York. In this he was more unflappable and in my opinion, less likeable. As Jack Burton in Big Trouble, he is useless. Russell’s performance as the loveable rogue, makes men laugh and women shake their heads. Sporting a mullet that any wrestler from the time would be proud of, he carries the film with a performance that gets better on each viewing.
Starting as the brash, know-it-all at a poker game, we are introduced to Burton and Wang Chi. Burton takes his money at poker and then on a double or nothing bet, takes even more. Wang tries to split a bottle with a knife, fails and Burton shows his excellent reflexes as he quips ‘it’s all in the reflexes.’ We think of Wang immediately as the sidekick character, but very soon the film actually makes Burton the follower. They head off to the airport to pick up Wang’s fiancée and the story begins. Here we can see the origins of the script as a western. Two friends play poker, one friends girl gets kidnapped then they both set of to save her. The original idea of having the Chinese mystical elements, in a turn of the century western, didn’t make it with executives and by chance we got the film set in 1980’s Chinatown.
We get the first sign of Burton’s uselessness at the airport, after flirting with Kim Cattrall’s character, Burton picks a fight with the Lords of Death street Gang who kidnap Wang’s girl. The cocky Burton, pulls his trusty knife, but is met with a sword and ends up getting tripped and left on the ground. The knife comes out again in one of the most memorable scenes. Sitting in their truck, Burton and Wang get caught in a Chinese funeral, which turns into a full on street war. In the truck Burton pulls his knife – seriously,what is his knife going to do inside the truck? Burton, gets involved in the mess of a plot, as his truck gets stolen, every time a serious issue comes up Burton again brings it back to his stolen truck. In getting it back he unwittingly helps save the day.
The special effects in the film are something of a rarity, they stand the test of time. It is one of the few films to use brilliant, white light as its main effect. From the early lightning of the guide Egg Chen, to the brilliant effects on Lo Pan, the chief antagonist we are truly taken aback at what we are seeing and it doesn’t suffer at all on repeated viewings. There is clear wire work on the martial arts scenes, but this is handled in the spirit of the film. As the script is a mish-mash of themes and ideas that somehow work, so are the fight scenes. The stand-off at the funeral is a brutal, all-out war between two factions. Despite lasting around three minutes on-screen, the brutality and choreography is very memorable and set a benchmark for impressive group efforts to me. The first battle also introduces three enemies, that from a design point of view have influenced Mortal Kombat and others, the three storms.
The introduction of three demigods as enemies in a film, that started life as a western is handled brilliantly. I can see why box office audiences didn’t connect at the time. There was virtually no information put out about the film. People may have been expecting a buddy film akin to 48 Hrs or Beverly Hills Cop. Instead they get three guys coming down in the guise of thunder, rain and lightning. The audience reaction would have been similar to Burton’s as he stares gape jawed at Wang. Wang tells him to just drive and that’s exactly what the audience should do. Just let the film carry you along. The design of the storms mimics Raiden from Mortal Kombat. The large straw hat and the control over lightning, make it easy to draw comparisons. The following butchering of the previously dominant streetfighters are heard off-screen, but we see the brutal weapons the storms use. Clever and understated, their use throughout the film is almost as good as Lo Pan.
The excellent James Hong, plays Lo Pan in two ways. As a cursed dictator, he hams it up enough to be the perfect foil to Russell’s Burton. Lo Pan has the curse of being a ghost and only able to take physical form in the shape of a wheelchair bound old man. The breaking of the curse is the reason for the kidnapping. He needs to marry a girl with green eyes. Both Wang’s girl and Kim Cattrall fit the bill. Jack gets drawn deeper and deeper into this mystical world where his own way of dealing with the situations, somehow works. When he shoots one of the enemy, after finally working out how to use his gun, the look on his face tells you, he is all bravado, and only now does he realise the situation he is in. Lo Pan is the Vader to Egg Chen’s Obi Wan and the two sorcerers face down in the final battle. Much like many foes the fight is a stalemate and in the middle of another wonderful group battle, Wang kills Rain and Jack Burton gets his chance one against one on Lo Pan. With the girls behind him he takes his chance and throws the knife at the now flesh Lo Pan. He misses horribly and gets another shake of the head from Cattrall. Lo Pan compliments the knife’s quality before throwing it back at him only to see the Burton reflexes catch it and send it back straight between the eyes. Again ‘It’s all in the reflexes’.
The ending of the film sets it apart from many of its contemporaries. In perhaps an effort for a sequel we see the happy surviving warriors celebrating in Wang’s restaurant. Wang has his girl and Cattrall is set up for Jack Burton. Just when you think there is going to be a story book ending the film again shows its western roots as Burton declines staying with her and heads off into the sun. Riding the Pork Chop Express like the trusty steed it is, the film can’t help throwing another twist in as the credits roll.
To qualify as a formative film, I feel a movie has to excel at doing something different whether by design or by accident. The difficult circumstances, which led to the film becoming what it is can be found with a simple internet search. What makes the film special is its triumph on many levels. The sheer amount of themes and imagery, that are thrown at the screen manage to fit into the overarching story-lines, which themselves are a fusion of western and fantasy. Carpenter became disillusioned with the critical reaction to this film and began to try more independent films. I can see why, the skill needed to make all these ingredients work is akin to Tarantino at his finest. The performances of all the cast fit perfectly and the story stands up well today. The film has a cult following and rightly so, I encourage everyone to seek it out and be prepared for an unexpected surprise. It easily qualifies as one of our formative films.