Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton
John Carpenter has a pretty strong reputation in the realm of modern horror. Frankly, I’ve never much cared for his work. I like his subversive leftist tone, and nearly all of his pictures have great individual pieces that are often built on strong ideas. But rarely does he seem able to get a great idea to work for the length of a film. For me, the main exception to this is Big Trouble in Little China (1986) — an utterly preposterous mix of invented Chinese mythology and dubious notions of Chinese magic thrown together with martial arts action, a 2,000-year-old villain, the occasional monster, often hysterically funny and deliberately expository dialogue and a stupefyingly dumb hero (who mostly speaks in outbursts of one-liner braggadocio). For some reason, this all comes together to create a marvelously entertaining movie. It’s one of those movies that flopped originally, but its reputation has grown over the years — probably thanks to home video — and is now considered a cult classic. For once, the accolade is deserved. Unlike most filmmakers who set out to make a kind of ersatz drive-in movie (especially back then), Carpenter actually delivers the essence of enjoyably bad cinema to the screen.
The casting of the film gets most of the credit for the success of this silly story about an ancient magician, Lo Pan (James Hong), who schemes to marry a legendary green-eyed woman in order to become flesh. Hong is perfect as Lo Pan. The same is true of the great Victor Wong as his archenemy Egg Shen. Kim Cattrall gives perhaps the most likable performance of her career. But the real gem here is Kurt Russell as the dim-bulb hero who talks like John Wayne, but is almost totally ineffectual. Russell plays it straight and makes it work. It helps that the dialogue is either clever, intentionally clunky, or amusingly inappropriate for the whole film. (Does anyone really expect the 2,000-year-old Lo Pan to say, “Now, this really pisses me off no end?”) The production design is first rate (there are enough neon lights in Lo Pan’s temple for at least 15 Chinese restaurants), and the simple special effects have a charm that’s totally missing in today’s movies. What more can you ask for? OK, so a six demon bag would be a help, but you’ll have to talk to Egg Shen about that.
In Brief: John Carpenter’s cult favorite is a wild mish-mash of ersatz Chinese magic, a 2,000-year-old villain, martial arts, gorgeous production design and Kurt Russell as a stupefyingly dim-witted hero. It probably shouldn’t work, but it somehow does thanks in large part to a jokey tone and endlessly quotable dialogue.