To close out this themed month of horror films, we’re going for John Carpenter’s light-hearted send-up of scary films in the 1986 Big Trouble in Little China.
Kurt Russell plays Jack Burton, a truck driver with more than a passing interest in the paranormal. He’s a slack-jawed, wise-cracking, superbly-mulleted man with a flair for adventure and a drawl that’s uncannily similar to John Wayne’s. Jack is thrust into action early in the film when a local gang kidnaps the fiancée of his spritely pal Wang, played by Dennis Dun. Being partly at fault, Jack resolves to help Wang on the ensuing rescue mission with the aid of their new acquaintance Gracie (played by Kim Cattrall). The search leads them back to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where they soon become embroiled in a bitter and deadly gang war. But Jack, Wang, and Gracie are not the only intruders in the feud; before you know it, magical sorcerers and wizards intervene in the brawl, and the film takes a turn toward the supernatural.
It turns out that Wang’s fiancée has been kidnapped by the ancient villain Lo Pan, played by James Hong in a get-up that is too close to Fu Manchu not to be an homage. The legend of Lo Pan is that he remains cursed to frailty in old age unless he can sacrifice a bride with green eyes. Both Wang’s fiancée and Gracie fit the bill, of course, so it’s up to Jack to foil Lo Pan’s dastardly plot.
If the storyline seems convoluted, it’s because it unquestionably is. For what amounts to a relatively straightforward adventure flick, with references to horror movie tropes throughout, the story of Big Trouble appears to have much more going on than is really the case. Scratch the surface, and it’s actually a pretty simple movie. From scene to scene, the film does little more than present little challenges to the protagonists that unlock their path to the next room, where yet another challenge awaits them. But the shallowness of the plot notwithstanding, neither the story—nor, for that matter, the characters—matter all that much, because Carpenter is very much in on the joke. How could he not be, with his wanton reliance on tired tropes and clichés ranging from the damsel-in-distress (times two, no less!), to the lonesome cowboy, to the trafficking in cheap Sinophobic gags.
Carpenter has never bothered to try positioning himself as an especially nuanced and thoughtful film-maker beyond his capacity to thrill audiences. He’s a master of effects and suspense, not an auteur of studies in the human condition. Whether it’s The Thing, or the Escape from… series, or Halloween, Carpenter delights in using special effects to drive much of the entertainment value. In his world, characters aren’t so much well-spun or fully-developed as they are vehicles designed to convey an audience from one set-piece to the next. And, for the record, the set-pieces are magnificent. The fight scenes are absurd, the effects are—while clearly dated—charming in their own odd way, and there’s a tongue-in-cheek tone throughout. Throughout the film, Carpenter peppers self-referential elbow nudges in the audience’s side that excuse many of the worse moments as though they’re just part and parcel of Big Trouble’s intended frivolity.
Perhaps it isn’t fair to close out our month of horror-themed movies with a film that so proudly and irreverently sends up that very genre. But given Carpenter’s credentials as one of the maestros of scary films, he knows exactly which buttons to push to make the send-up work. It really is a very fun film, and it’s worth enjoying over Halloween weekend.