It’s easy to see how Big Trouble failed to fully connect with audiences upon its 1986 release, and why it has remained divisive since despite its cult following. Whether deliberately or not, Carpenter crafted a movie that’s constantly hard to get a handle on. Expectations are constantly being subverted, red herrings keep being thrown into the mix, and often elements are only explained after we’ve spent a few minutes trying to work out what the hell’s going on.
We’re introduced to Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton as if he’s our hero. And he is, to an extent, but only in the way that we like and identify with him, but not because he does anything particularly heroic. When we’re introduced to Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi, there’s a moment where it seems he could be a bad egg before he’s established as Burton’s comedy sidekick. Except, of course, we’ve got them the wrong way around, and as the film ramps up Wang gets more and more awesome, while Jack gets all the sillier.
Carpenter never takes the time to make any of that explicit, and the camera follows Jack as if he’s the hero. But honestly, how could he take the time to help us understand? There’s barely time to pause and take breath. We’re immediately thrown into a huge, bonkers action set-piece in Little China, and it’s pretty much balls to the wall from there on in. The villainous Lo Pan (a deliciously unhinged James Hong) needs to sacrifice a green-eyed girl to break an ancient curse, so Wang and Jack need to save Wang’s girlfriend Miao Yin from Lo Pan’s labyrinthine lair. But Kim Cattrall’s Gracie Law has green eyes too, and there was another green-eyed girl at the airport at the beginning too… Carpenter’s red herrings appear to come with green eyes.
Maybe it’s a little too silly at times to be recognised as a truly great action movie, and perhaps there’s too much action for it to be acknowledged as a comedy classic… but that’s probably my way of saying that I think the action’s incredible and the comedy’s genius. Big Trouble in Little China is never predictable and gleefully revels in subverting expectations. There’s nothing quite like it, and that’s why it really does stand the test of time. There isn’t a modern equivalent and it remains an essential watch.