Modern-day action goulash has Russell’s knockout channeling of John Wayne
By Jimmy Gillman
This fun-filled, modern-day action goulash has sorcerers, ancient prophecies, battles between good and evil, kidnappings and a large dose of the indomitable American spirit, the latter by way of Kurt Russell’s knockout performance, channeling one of the funniest John Wayne personas the screen has ever known.
Big Trouble in Little China comes from the mind of director John Carpenter, one of Hollywood’s most successful low-budget filmmakers, whose hits include Halloween; Assault on Precinct 13; and Escape from New York. Here the versatile director tackles the fantasy/action genre in high style with the delightful tale of Jack Burton—man of the world, American, truck driver extraordinaire!
Seems Jack’s gotten himself mixed up in some ancient feud, and now his buddy’s girlfriend has been kidnapped. That sends Jack and an amusing assortment of compatriots on a mission to rescue her and in the process reclaim Jack’s beloved 18-wheeler, The Pork Chop Express, which was probably taken by the same scoundrels who grabbed the girl.
Lots of wild and improbable situations ensue; the humor ever present, with tongue always planted firmly in cheek. Like most of Carpenter's efforts, things move along quickly, and the entire cast is in excellent form, with Russell’s Jack Burton matched by Kim Cattrall as a crusading lawyer and Dennis Dun as Wang, the guy with the missing girlfriend.
Dun and Russell make a terrific pair, playing off one another in ways that are fun to watch. When the action turns to spectacularly staged kung-fu fights, Dun displays his Bruce Lee best, joined by other marshal arts experts in a series of rousing, well choreographed set pieces. These are also fun to watch, but what makes Big Trouble in Little China a distinct cut above is Carpenter’s refusal to allow the fisticuffs to become the centerpiece of the story, keeping things focused on the characters.
Even lesser characters are well fleshed out in roles that actually serve a purpose. That brings a nice balance to the film and keeps it from ever getting too serious or too silly; although truth be told, it is kind of silly, but only in a highly creative, entertaining way.
Unfairly maligned when first released, many critics simply missed the film’s broad parody, its affectionate take on kung-fu movies, the homage to Saturday matinees, and its self-deprecating send-up of Asian culture. Those qualities, combined with an energetic cast and a teasing script make Big Trouble in Little China well worth a visit.