When a supernatural menace arises in Chinatown, San Francisco, a trucker teams up with his pal to find a green-eyed girl and stop great evil from taking over the world.
John Carpenter, 1986
This movie has been recommended to me twice as one that I should watch, and I can see why. Cult 80s action movie with supernatural overtones, awesomely gruesome puppetry and an underground neon Chinese temple for the climax? That’s so me it hurts. I wish my enjoyment of the movie weren’t hampered by its casual racism and sexism, but I’m me and it was. Still, it’s a pretty fabulous slice of Kung Fu action pie.
I love the OTT style of 80s action movies. It means that if a scene is lacking, there’ll be another one right after that will be more entertaining. John Carpenter is pretty reliable in delivering entertaining movies, and he continued the tradition with this homage to kung fu and Westerns. Kurt Russell seems to be having a ball with his Jack (of course) Burton, a Bruce Campbell-esque parody of traditional action cowboys – he impersonates John Wayne, but it feels like Jack impersonating John Wayne, attacking every situation with gusto and finding himself consistently way out of his league. He’s mouthy and quick with a joke, but not quite the hero he makes himself out to be, which makes him easier to root for when he does come through. Kim Cattral’s Gracie Law has some pretty fantastic lines and gets in a few kicks and punches herself, but she’s more in the vein of feisty damsel than action heroine. Dennis Dun plays the Chinese “sidekick” (a frustrating role, since the plot mostly hinges on him wanting to save his girl from the evil Lo Pan, delightfully played by James Hong). He’s just adorable, and I would happily watch a movie with him in the lead.
The film mixes the Hollywood version of Chinese “mysticism” with a then-modern view of Chinatown. This makes for some fun minor characters and fight scenes, but it also paints a stereotypically one-dimensional portrait of being Chinese in America. There are some moments that transcend this racism, and by all accounts the original script was a lot more racist, but that doesn’t forgive the racism throughout a movie with an almost entirely Asian (male) cast…except for the white leads. Sigh. The girls are almost entirely damsels, although there is a nice moment with a couple of kung-fu fighting girls halfway through the film.
The movie draws you into its fantasy world gradually and neatly – it starts in the real world and introduces a bit of electric-style magic here and there until you’re surrounded by flying martial artists, some marvelous puppet-y creature work, and a guy who expands so much he explodes. It’s all fun and games until somebody becomes a ball made of eyes! The action fizzes and the characters are fun, and if it weren’t for the social injustice issues it’d be a genuinely fantastic film
Big Trouble in Little China on IMDb