Big Trouble in Little China
|Big Trouble in Little China|
|Directed by||John Carpenter|
|Produced by||Larry J. Franco|
W. D. Richter
David Z. Weinstein
|Music by||John Carpenter
|Editing by||Steve Mirkovich
Edward A. Warschilka
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Release dates||July 2, 1986|
|Running time||99 minutes|
Big Trouble in Little China (also known as John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China) is a 1986 American martial arts comedy film directed by John Carpenter. It stars Kurt Russell as truck driver Jack Burton, who helps his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) rescue Wang's green-eyed fiancee (Suzee Pai) from bandits in San Francisco's Chinatown. They go into the mysterious underworld beneath Chinatown, where they face an ancient sorcerer named David Lo Pan (James Hong).
Although the film was originally envisioned as a Western set in the 1880s, screenwriter W. D. Richter was hired to rewrite the script extensively and modernize everything. The studio hired Carpenter to direct the film and rushed Big Trouble in Little China into production so that it would be released before a similarly themed Eddie Murphy film, The Golden Child, which was slated to come out around the same time. The project fulfilled Carpenter's long-standing desire to make a martial arts film.
The movie was a commercial failure, grossing $11.1 million in North America slightly below its estimated $20 million budget. It received critically mixed reviews that left Carpenter disillusioned with Hollywood and influenced his decision to return to independent film-making. The movie is a cult film due to its success on home video.
Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and his friend, restaurant owner Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), go to the airport to pick up Wang's fiancee Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), who is arriving from China. A Chinese street gang, the Lords of Death, kidnaps Miao Yin, intending to sell her as a sex slave. In Jack's big-rig truck, he and Wang track the Lords of Death to the back alleys of Chinatown, where they find a funeral procession that quickly erupts into a street fight between the Chang Sing and Wing Kong, two ancient Chinese societies. When "The Three Storms" (Thunder, Rain, and Lightning) appear, slaughtering the Chang Sing, Jack tries to escape but runs over Lo Pan (James Hong), a powerful and legendary sorcerer, as well as the leader of the Wing Kong. Horrified, Jack exits his truck, only to be blinded by Lo Pan, who is merely annoyed. Wang hurriedly guides Jack through the alleys, escaping the carnage and mayhem, but Jack's truck is stolen.
Wang takes Jack to his restaurant, where they meet up with lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), Wang's friend Eddie Lee (Donald Li), and magician Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a local authority on Lo Pan. They try to explain to an incredulous Jack some of the ancient knowledge and sorcery the Chinese brought with them to America, eventually devising a plan to infiltrate a brothel, where they think Miao Yin is being held. However, the Storms make off with Miao Yin, bringing her to a front owned by Lo Pan. Trying to rescue her, Jack and Wang are quickly subdued by Rain and taken to see Lo Pan, now in the form of a crippled, old man. Wang tells Jack that Lo Pan needs a special green-eyed girl to break an ancient curse, and he intends to sacrifice Miao Yin. When Jack and Wang's friends attempt to save them, they are also captured, and Lo Pan notes that Gracie has green eyes, too. Lo Pan decides to sacrifice Gracie, while making Miao Yin his unwilling wife.
After getting the drop on Thunder, Jack and Wang escape, also freeing many women kept in holding cells. Wang and Jack go to see Egg Shen, and, with the help of the Chang Sing, they enter an underground cavern and reach Lo Pan's headquarters. Egg pours each of the group a potent potion that Jack says makes him feel "kind of invincible." During the wedding ceremony, a huge fight ensues, which Jack misses, due to accidentally knocking himself out. Wang kills Rain in a sword duel, while Jack and Gracie try to catch Lo Pan. Wang joins them, and, just when all seems lost, Jack kills Lo Pan, with a skillful knife throw. Thunder, enraged and dishonored at his failure to protect his master, starts to inflate to an enormous size, exploding and killing himself. Jack, Wang, Gracie, and Miao Yin are cornered by Lightning in a corridor, which he makes collapse. Egg rescues them with a rope and kills Lightning, when he tries to follow. After finding Jack's truck, they escape back to Wang's restaurant.
Lo Pan having been defeated, the group celebrates in a warm and family-like way: Wang and Miao are obviously about to marry; Margo, Gracie's journalist friend, seems to be about to pair-up with Eddie; and Egg decides to go on a prolonged vacation, saying China is in the heart. Jack, instead of starting up a new life with Gracie, (as everyone was expecting up to that point), begs farewell to the group and hits the open road, with an unknown-to-him stowaway – one of the remaining monsters from Lo Pan's labyrinth.
- Kurt Russell as Jack Burton
- Kim Cattrall as Gracie Law
- Dennis Dun as Wang Chi
- James Hong as David Lo Pan
- Victor Wong as Egg Shen
- Kate Burton as Margo Litzenberger
- Donald Li as Eddie Lee
- Carter Wong as Thunder
- Peter Kwong as Rain
- James Pax as Lightning
- Suzee Pai as Miao Yin
- Chao-Li Chi as Uncle Chu
- Al Leong as Wing Kong Hatchet Man
- Nathan Jung as Wing Kong Hatchet Man
The first version of the screenplay was written by first-time screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Weinstein. Goldman had been inspired by a new wave of martial arts films that had "all sorts of weird actions and special effects, shot against this background of Oriental mysticism and modern sensibilities". They had written a Western originally set in the 1880s with Jack Burton as a cowboy who rides into town. Goldman and Weinstein envisioned combining Chinese fantasy elements with the western. They submitted the script to producers Paul Monash and Keith Barish during the summer of 1982. Monash bought their script and had them do at least one rewrite, but still did not like the results. He remembers, “The problems came largely from the fact it was set in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, which affected everything—style, dialogue, action”. Goldman rejected a request by 20th Century Fox for a re-write that asked for major alterations. He was angered when the studio wanted to update it to a contemporary setting. The studio then removed the writers from the project. However, they still wanted credit for their contributions.
The studio brought in screenwriter W. D. Richter, a veteran script doctor (and director of cult film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) to extensively rewrite the script, as he felt that the Wild West and fantasy elements didn’t work together. The screenwriter modernized everything. Almost everything in the original script was discarded except for Lo Pan’s story. Richter realized that “what it needed wasn’t a rewrite but a complete overhaul. It was a dreadful screenplay. This happens often when scripts are bought and there’s no intention that the original writers will stay on”. Richter used Rosemary's Baby as his template, presenting “the foreground story in a familiar context – rather than San Francisco at the turn-of-the-century, which distances the audience immediately – and just have one simple remove, the world underground, you have a much better chance of making direct contact with the audience”. He wrote his own draft in 10 weeks. Goldman contacted Richter and suggested that he should not work on the project. Richter told him, "I'm sorry the studio doesn't want to go forward with you guys, but my turning it down is not going to get you the job. They'll just hire someone else".
Fox wanted to deny Goldman and Weinstein writing credit, and eliminated their names from press releases. They wanted only Richter to have credit. In March 1986, the Writers Guild of America, west determined that Richter would not receive credit for his work on the script and it would go instead to Goldman and Weinstein, based on the WGA screenwriting credit system which protects original writers. Director John Carpenter was disappointed that Richter did not get a proper screenwriting credit on the movie because of the ruling. Carpenter made his own additions to Richter’s rewrites, which included strengthening the Gracie Law role and linking her to Chinatown, removing a few action sequences due to budgetary restrictions and eliminating material deemed offensive to Chinese Americans. The characters in the film reminded Carpenter “of the characters in Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. These are very 1930s, Howard Hawks people." The rapid-fire delivery of dialogue, especially between Jack Burton and Gracie Law, is an example of to what the director is referring.
Barish and Monash first offered the project to Carpenter in July 1985. He had read the Goldman/Weinstein script and deemed it “outrageously unreadable though it had many interesting elements”. To compete with rival production The Golden Child’s casting of box office draw Eddie Murphy, Carpenter wanted a big star of his own and both Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson were considered but were busy.
The studio felt Kurt Russell was an up-and-coming star. Russell was initially not interested because he felt there were “a number of different ways to approach Jack, but I didn’t know if there was a way that would be interesting enough for this movie”. After talking to Carpenter and reading the script a couple more times, he gained insight into the character and liked the notion of playing “a hero who has so many faults. Jack is and isn’t the hero. He falls on his ass as much as he comes through. This guy is a real blowhard. He’s a lot of hot air, very self-assured, a screw-up”. Furthermore, the actor felt that "at heart he thinks he's Indiana Jones but the circumstances are always too much for him". Russell felt that the film would be a hard one to market. "This is a difficult picture to sell because it's hard to explain. It's a mixture of the real history of Chinatown in San Francisco blended with Chinese legend and lore. It's bizarre stuff. There are only a handful of non-Asian actors in the cast".
John Carpenter had seen Dennis Dun in Year of the Dragon and liked his work in that film. He met the actor twice before casting him in the role of Wang Chi only a few days before principal photography. The martial arts sequences were not hard for Dun who had “dabbled” in training as a kid and done Chinese opera as an adult. He was drawn to the portrayal of Asian characters in the movie as he said, “I’m seeing Chinese actors getting to do stuff that American movies usually don’t let them do. I’ve never seen this type of role for an Asian in an American film”.
The studio pressured Carpenter to cast a rock star in the role of Gracie Law, Jack Burton's love interest and constant source of aggravation. For Carpenter there was no question, he wanted Kim Cattrall. The studio was not keen on the idea because at the time Cattrall was primarily known for raunchy comedies like Porky's and Police Academy. She was drawn to the movie because of the way her character was portrayed. “I’m not screaming for help the whole time. I think the humor comes out of the situations and my relationship with Jack Burton. I’m the brains and he’s the brawn”.
Kurt Russell lifted weights and began running two months before production began in order to get ready for the physical demands of principal photography. In addition, Carpenter and his cast and crew did a week's rehearsals that mainly involved choreographing the martial arts scenes. 20th Century Fox was afraid that the production would create major overruns and hired Carpenter to direct because he could work fast. He was given only 10 weeks of pre-production.
Problems began to arise when Carpenter learned that the next Eddie Murphy vehicle, The Golden Child, featured a similar theme and was going to be released around the same time as Big Trouble in Little China. (As it happened, Carpenter was asked by Paramount Pictures to direct The Golden Child). He remarked in an interview, “How many adventure pictures dealing with Chinese mysticism have been released by the major studios in the past 20 years? For two of them to come along at the exact same time is more than mere coincidence.” To beat the rival production at being released in theaters, Big Trouble went into production in October 1985 so that it could open in July 1986, five months before The Golden Child’s Christmas release.
Production designer John Lloyd designed the elaborate underground sets and re-created Chinatown with three-story buildings, roads, streetlights, sewers and so on. This was necessary for the staging of complicated special effects and kung fu fight sequences that would have been very hard to do on location. This forced the filmmaker to shoot the film in 15 weeks with a $25 million budget. For the film’s many fight scenes Carpenter worked with martial arts choreographer James Lew, who planned out every move in advance. Says Carpenter, "I used every cheap gag – trampolines, wires, reverse movements and upside down sets. It was much like photographing a dance.”
Carpenter envisioned the film as an inverse of traditional scenarios in action films with a Caucasian protagonist helped by a minority sidekick. In Big Trouble in Little China, Jack Burton, despite his bravado, is constantly portrayed as rather bumbling; in one fight sequence he even knocks himself unconscious before the fight begins. Wang Chi, on the other hand, is constantly portrayed as highly skilled and competent. On a commentary track for the DVD release, Carpenter commented that the film is really about a sidekick (Burton) who thinks he is a leading man. According to Carpenter, the studio "didn't get [his film]" and made him write something that would explain the character of Jack Burton. Carpenter came up with the prologue scene between Egg Shen and the lawyer.
Carpenter was not entirely satisfied with Boss Film Studios, the company in charge of the film's visual effects. According to the director, they took on more projects than they could handle and some effects for the film had to be cut down. Richard Edlund, head of Boss Film Studios, said that there were no difficulties with the company's workload and that Big Trouble was probably its favorite film at the time, with the exception of Ghostbusters. The effects budget for the film was just under $2 million, which Edlund said was barely adequate. One of the more difficult effects was the floating eyeball, a spy for Lo-Pan. It was powered by several puppeteers and dozens of cables to control its facial expressions. It was shot with a special matting system specially designed for it.
John Carpenter received a Saturn Award Best Music nomination for this film. With the soundtrack, Carpenter wanted to avoid the usual clichés as he found that “other scores for American movies about Chinese characters are basically rinky tink, chop suey music. I didn’t want that for Big Trouble”. Carpenter instead opted for his trademark synthesizer score mixed with rock ‘n’ roll music.
Opening in 1,053 theaters on July 2, 1986, Big Trouble in Little China grossed $2.7 million in its opening weekend and went on to gross $11.1 million in North America, well below its estimated budget of $25 million. The film was released in the midst of the hype for James Cameron's blockbuster Aliens, which was released a mere sixteen days after. On the DVD commentary for Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter and Russell discuss this amongst possible reasons for the film's disappointing box office gross.
The film received mixed reviews from critics when it was first released but has since enjoyed a reappraisal. It currently has an 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Ron Base, in his review for the Toronto Star, praised Russell's performance. "He does a great John Wayne imitation. But he's not just mimicking these heroes, he is using them to give his own character a broad, satiric edge." Walter Goodman in the New York Times wrote, "In kidding the flavorsome proceedings even as he gets the juice out of them, the director, John Carpenter, is conspicuously with it." Writer Harlan Ellison, widely known in Hollywood for his brutally honest critiques, praised the film, writing that it had "some of the funniest lines spoken by any actor this year to produce a cheerfully blathering live-action cartoon that will give you release from the real pressures of your basically dreary lives." In his review for Time, Richard Corliss wrote, "Little China offers dollops of entertainment, but it is so stocked with canny references to other pictures that it suggests a master's thesis that moves."
However, in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote, "special effects don't mean much unless we care about the characters who are surrounded by them, and in this movie the characters often seem to exist only to fill up the foregrounds", and felt that it was "straight out of the era of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, with no apologies and all of the usual stereotypes". Paul Attanasio, in the Washington Post, criticized the screenwriters for being "much better at introducing a character than they are at developing one". David Ansen wrote, in his review for Newsweek, "though it is action packed, spectacularly edited and often quite funny, one can't help feeling that Carpenter is squeezing the last drops out of a fatigued genre." In his review for The Times, David Robinson felt that Carpenter was, "overwhelmed by his own special effects, without a strong enough script to guide him".
After the commercial and critical failure of the film, Carpenter became very disillusioned with Hollywood and became an independent filmmaker. He said in an interview, “The experience [of Big Trouble] was the reason I stopped making movies for the Hollywood studios. I won’t work for them again. I think Big Trouble is a wonderful film, and I’m very proud of it. But the reception it received, and the reasons for that reception, were too much for me to deal with. I’m too old for that sort of bullshit.” Since its initial release it has developed a cult following and is now well received by critics. Empire magazine voted Big Trouble in Little China the 430th greatest film in their "500 Greatest Movies of All Time" list.
In a 2008 article on The Huffington Post, left-leaning political pundit David Sirota interpreted the movie in allegorical terms of the United States' role in the world, and argues that the film was a warning more relevant now than when it was first released. Sirota argues that the film casts Jack Burton as a personification the United States while Lo Pan and his gang are "the Rest of the World, and more specifically, the Non-Aligned Countries, otherwise known as the Axis of Evil". Moreover, Sirota suggests that "the tongue-in-cheek flavor of the film suggests Carpenter is using the Burton character to deliberately ridicule American hubris" and that the ending shot of the monster coming out of hiding in the back of Jack's truck "could be the world taking revenge on that hubris".
Big Trouble in Little China was released on a two-disc special edition DVD set on May 22, 2001. Entertainment Weekly gave the DVD a "B+" rating and wrote, "The highlight of this two disc set – which also features deleted scenes, an extended ending, trailers, and a 1986 featurette – is the pitch perfect Russell and Carpenter commentary, which delves into Fox's marketing mishaps, Chinese history, and how Russell's son did in his hockey game." In his review for the Onion A.V. Club, Noel Murray wrote, "If nothing else, this is a DVD designed for Big Trouble cultists; it's packed with articles from Cinefex and American Cinematographer that only a genre geek would appreciate."
A single disc movie only DVD version was later released with the only special features being the Carpenter / Russell commentary and the theatrical trailer.
A Blu-ray Disc edition of the film was released on August 4, 2009. It contains the same content as the double disc DVD release.
At the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con, Top Cow Productions revealed previews of an upcoming Big Trouble in Little China comic book series. The series will be written by Evan Bleiweiss and pencilled by Jason Badower. No further announcements about the project have been made.
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|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Big Trouble in Little China|
- Big Trouble in Little China at the Internet Movie Database
- Big Trouble in Little China at allmovie
- Big Trouble in Little China at Rotten Tomatoes
- Big Trouble in Little China at Box Office Mojo
- Big Trouble in Little China at John Carpenter's official website
- The Wing Kong Exchange discussion of film influence.
- Erasing Clouds retrospective article