Today, I actually spent some time fretting. I seriously thought about reviewing The Fellowship of the Ring. In the end, I’m shying away from that, because I know it would then commit me to reviewing The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Not because I’m concerned about tackling a series of movies that, if watched back-to-back-to-back, would take up most of a day (or a weekend, if you’re talking about the special editions with all of the bonus material. And no, I didn’t shy away from it because it’s Tolkien’s birthday (truth be told, until a friend posted about it on Facebook, I had no idea, because I’m a bad geek when it comes to dates). No, instead, I’m shying away from the film because, well, there’s a movie that just got placed onto the Netflix streaming service that has long been a favorite of mine, and I love when a good coincidence comes together. So, without further ado, let’s move on to this week’s review.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
If you were sitting in 1987 talking about this film, there are decent odds that the people you’d be talking with hadn’t seen it, or even heard of it. Big Trouble in Little China didn’t do all that well at the box office. It wasn’t until home video that the film started to take off, which earned it a (much deserved) cult film status. Really, this isn’t horribly surprising when you look at the overall concept of the film. Take a truck driver who’s going to help his friend retrieve his lady love from the airport. Throw in a sarcastic lawyer to be the love interest for the truck driver, and then add a heaping portion of mysticism and magic all wrapped up in a package that seems somewhat like a Western set in Chinatown, and you’ve got your film.
There’s a reason that the film has Western feel to it. That was how it was originally envisioned, before it was dramatically overhauled and modernized, to better match up against Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child. And yet, even with the huge overhaul, there’s just something about Big Trouble in Little China that sticks with me, even after all of these years. Part of it, certainly, is tied to the performances delivered by the actors. Kurt Russell is Jack Burton, the truck driver mentioned above, a man who’s a hero in spite of himself. Burton seems to stumble his way through the events around him, but comes out of it all not only with the girl, but with the knowledge that he’s helped save Chinatown from a terrifying evil. Kim Cattrall is Gracie Law, the lawyer Jack ends up falling for, and she’s able to step outside of the typical “damsel in distress” tropes to provide a bit of offense of her own. And, of course, you’ve got David Hong as David Lo Pan, the mystical sorcerer who’s behind the plot to kidnap the girls. After all, if Lo Pan can only get a girl with green eyes to marry him, he’ll be granted eternal life (although why Lo Pan never tried to search for his green-eyed benefactor in Ireland is beyond me).
The film seems to play out at first as a standard story about rescuing a fair maiden from evil, but it quickly steps above that. There are some impressive martial arts scenes, generally featuring Dennis Dun as Wang Chi on the side of good, and any combination of Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, and James Pax as Thunder, Rain, and Lightning respectively (yes, Lo Pan’s main henchmen are named after weather conditions, and the reasoning why becomes apparent when their powers are shown). There’s also a generous amount of comedy scattered through the film, often at the expense of our hero, Jack Burton. Whether it’s something simple, like unloading a clip into a weak ceiling or questioning if the black blood of the Earth is supposed to be oil, Burton’s cluelessness about exactly what he’s up against help drive the film. Of course, by the end, both leading men (Burton and Wang Chi) are able to rescue their respective love interests, having defeated evil in this go around, but the anticipated ending doesn’t really make the film worse, even if it was predictable. Sometimes, going with the expected is exactly what audiences need.
Burton is a satire of some of the great heroes of cinema. He’s bold, brash, and more than willing to storm into danger without making sure he knows what he’s facing. The difference between him and the types of characters portrayed by men like John Wayne is that Burton fails more often than not, even if he is able to come out on the winning side in the end. His bravado actually causes more problems than it fixes, and, despite seeming to have grown over the course of the film, he’s still unleashing his hubris on anyone within earshot of his CB signal.
Somehow, though, even with all of that, I still hold on to Jack’s final line from the film. Because, yes, I have caught myself saying “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”