Revisiting 1986 Cult Classic ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ at 35 in 3 Slices

Julien Neaves, Editor

Growing up in Trinidad we had just one TV station, Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT). And sometimes on a weekend TTT would air an old school kung fu movie, which we would call “kick-ups”. Well what would happen if you take one of those kick-ups, add in a fantasy element and then stir in a wacky sense of humour? Then the result would be John Carpenter’s cult classic fantasy martial arts action-comedy film Big Trouble in Little China and on July 2 it celebrated its 35th anniversary.

I’m a huge fan of this crazy film so I just had to drop the old retro review. With a wall-monster-sized SPOILER ALERT let’s kung fu chop it in three slices:

#1 Heroes Against the Storms

And I’m just gonna ask this one more time—WHERE…IS…MY…TRUCK!

The most memorable character in this wild, mixed-up film is Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton, a manly, swaggering, wisecracking truck driver who gets mixed up in this ancient battle between good and evil. He’s brash, funny, a bit goofy, and charming with his easy-going attitude. Jack also acts as an audience stand-in and is the recipient of a lot of the exposition, which did get heavy at times.

He has cool buddy chemistry with his friend, restaurant owner and martial artist Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), who is more of the action character than Jack. We also see him trying to charm passionate lawyer Gracie Law (of course that’s her name) played by the gorgeous Kim Cattrall. She doesn’t do much though, other than have green eyes and get captured. Victor Wong is also a good time as quirky sorcerer/tour bus driver Egg Shen (of course that’s his name).

Hey guys. Pretty cool outfits. Are you all theatre actors, or something?

Jack is a memorable character but outside of him the real draw is the villains. The trio of elemental powered henchmen called the Storms just look so cool. Well, other than that weird knife throwing thing they did. Forget about that. My favourite of the three is Lightning with his dazzling lightning powers which became an inspiration for Mortal Kombat’s lightning-powered demigod Raiden. Rain was also cool with his flying swordplay but Thunder was just kind of there and is only really memorable for his death (more on that later).

And if we’re talking baddies we have to talk about big bad ancient sorcerer David Lo Pan, played with over-the-top delight by James Hong and which inspired Mortal Kombat’s Shang Tsung. Interestingly, future Shang Tsung actor Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa shows up here in a minor role together with ultimate 80s henchman actor Al Leong.

#2 What the Hell is That?!

No seriously, what the hell is that?!

John Carpenter did the music for the film with Alan Howarth, and while not as iconic as his Halloween theme the main theme is still an energetic, vibrant piece. The visual effects were decent and about on par with what one would expect for films at this time.

The practical effects were…interesting. There’s a giant wall monster thing that kinda looks silly. And then there’s the grotesque humanoid creature that kidnaps Gracie and hitches a ride with Jack at the end of of the film. I’ll get to the Thunder death later (patience, grasshopper) but I gotta talk about the floating eye spy creature. What the hell was that? That thing is freaky! He fits with the film’s whole aesthetic but all those eyes on the head and in the mouth? Ugh. Just ugh. Guest writer Michael Richards should enjoy that, though. He likes those kinda freaky creatures.

#3 A Trucker’s Tall Tale

Your soul is mine!

I could understand why this film did not do well at the box office because how do you even begin to market this film? There is just so much going on and it is so weird that I can see the average moviegoer just avoiding it altogether. But they (and people who still haven’t seen it) missed out on a unique and wickedly entertaining film.

The martial arts action is not the greatest but it is okay, with the high-flying fight between Wang and Rain being the highlight. We also get to see Jack gunning down a bunch of guys which was cool. It’s also not the funniest film though there are a few laugh-out-loud moments, including Jack letting out a battle roar before accidentally shooting the ceiling and getting knocked out by falling debris. Classic Jack!

Dang dude. Lay off the ‘roids. You know they shrink your penis, right?

But the most hilarious moment has to be Thunder’s death. After Jack kills Lo Pan with a knife to the head (one of the few things he actually does in the film) the henchman sees his master’s body and he gets so mad that he starts to swell. And swell. And swell. And swell. He swells up like a big ballon, steam comes out of his nose and ears and then he explodes in a hail of green blood and paper-looking body parts. And it is so 80s and so ridiculous and dumb and awesome. When I rewatched the film I knew it was coming but I still couldn’t help but laugh.

Now the film has its share of flaws. The plot is nothing to write home about and there are pacing issue. There’s also no explanation why Lo Pan looks like a decrepit old man and his ornately made-up self at different points even before he becomes corporeal. And in the cold open the cop mentions there was an explosion of a city block with green flame but all we see is some green flame briefly in the sky. But Big Trouble in Little China never takes itself very seriously and the audience shouldn’t either. Just sit back with a bucket of popcorn and let the glorious madness unfold.

Editor Jules’s Score: 7.5 out of 10

So are you a fan of Big Trouble in Little China? What’s your favourite scene? And you can check out more great classic content below:


Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.