In many Better Late Than Never cases, viewers/readers/listeners go into the experience with a lot more information than they probably should have. (If there’s one piece of Roger Ebert advice we’ve chosen to completely ignore, it’s his suggestion that we never watch movie trailers.) For example, Tasha Robinson’s 2008 appraisal of Titanic was colored by her almost-complete knowledge of a movie she’d never actually sat down and watched.
In the case of Big Trouble In Little China, I’m in a different boat. (Get it? Boat? Titanic?) My colleagues here at The A.V. Club professed serious shock that I’d not only never seen John Carpenter’s 1986 cult classic, but I knew basically nothing about it. This is surprising not because the movie was some sort of huge cultural touchstone or box-office success in general, but more because my generation seems to have embraced it as some sort of marker. (Or maybe it’s just the people in this office.) Wikipedia tells me that it was actually a box-office failure, raking in only $11 million.
I think it’s odd that I’ve never seen Big Trouble mostly because I really, really liked John Carpenter’s Escape From New York when I was about 10, and I can’t imagine my 12-year-old self not figuring out some way to con my mom into renting me a VHS tape with Kurt Russell looking kick-ass and holding a machine gun on the cover. (She once rented me the Duran Duran video collection with all the nudity, so there was precedent.) That was probably exactly who I wanted to be when I was 10—Kurt Russell holding a machine gun and delivering a huge shit-eating grin. There’s also a girl on the cover, but small, and in the corner. And a semi, which I guess is pretty cool, too.
Anyway, for the last year, Kyle and Keith have been bugging me to get down to business and watch it, so on the occasion of its re-release on Blu-ray (it’s currently #1 among martial-arts, comic-action, and Kurt Russell movies at Amazon), I figured I’d better.
Let me throw you a curveball and answer this column’s titular question right away. Better late than never? Yeah, sort of. My first reaction after Big Trouble’s goofily violent 99 minutes was that I really wish I had seen it when it came out. If I had, I could probably look at it 20 years later with genuine fondness, and have that strange experience where you communicate with your younger self and say, “You loved that movie with all of your heart? Remember how seriously you took it? What were you thinking, you little knucklehead?” (And then give yourself noogies.) The closest analog in my experience to this feeling is The Golden Child, a movie I probably watched 10,000 times (okay, 100) when I was a kid. Both films feature ridiculous plots, incredibly dated special effects that surely seemed amazing at the time, and mystical Asian powers. Two of the main Asian dudes in these two movies are played by the same actors, Victor Wong and James Hong, who play the wise/weird old Asians in every movie that requires one. They’re both hilarious, too.
Golden Child and Big Trouble also both came out in 1986, and both feature a pretty funny protagonist working at the height of his powers, and playing an atypical hero. Golden Child, of course, has Eddie Murphy when he was still awesome, between Beverly Hills Cop movies. Before you dismiss it completely, remember the “I want the knife” scene!
Big Trouble, which is what we’re here to talk about, stars Kurt Russell. I didn’t have a strong opinion about the studly actor coming into this one, and looking over his filmography, I realize I haven’t seen most of his big movies. But Russell is pretty great as Jack Burton, the big-rig driver who gets mixed up in Chinatown’s deep, deep underground. I’m not sure whether his low-wattage John Wayne impression is deliberate, but it’s pretty damn funny. And that’s just the voice. The look is great, too: He wears high-waisted jeans and a wifebeater throughout pretty much the whole movie, and he’s rarely without a knife or a machine gun. But he’s never a tough guy, which is why it works. He’s an unevolved everyman, supremely confident in everything he says, but basically outmatched by the world and his situation.
And what a situation: If it were any less dumb, it would look like Big Trouble was trying too hard to be serious. When Asian gangsters kidnap Russell’s friend’s fiancée at the airport, it sets off a chain of ridiculously choreographed kung-fu battles that eventually lead to an underground lair. Turns out the girl was kidnapped because she has green eyes, and an ancient ghostly mystic dude (Hong) must marry a green-eyed woman and then sacrifice her in order to lift a curse. But most of that doesn’t matter. What matters is Russell bumbling through fight after fight, running scared one minute and acting tough the next—and keeping an incredulous (yet somehow credulous) look on his face every time something weird happens. Three dudes descend from the sky in the middle of a gang war, and their names are Thunder, Rain, and Lightning? Apparently that’s only moderately weird. And Russell always, always takes a little time out of his action scenes to hit on Kim Cattrall, who plays a green-eyed lawyer along for the ride.
The great thing about Russell’s performance is that he never gets any smarter as the movie progresses. Twice during the movie’s biggest battle sequence, he’s incapacitated by his own stupidity—once by firing a gun into a ceiling and being knocked out by the resulting falling concrete, and once by knifing a really heavy bad guy, who falls on top of him. The whole thing is treated with exactly the amount of seriousness it deserves, which redeems the silliness of a floating eyeball. (It’s exactly the kind of special effect that probably looked incredible in 1986, and now just looks strange. And hey, it was rendered by the Ghostbusters special-effects team.)
But Big Trouble is plenty conscious of its silliness, which it embraces fully. The baddies’ underground lair not only has tons of ancient Buddha statues (huh?), it also has a Buddha-belly elevator, an escalator running into a giant mouth, and tons—I mean tons—of neon accent lights. It’s the perfect backdrop for a battle that looks like it takes place almost entirely on trampolines. In that way, Big Trouble is the best kind of action movie, because it ignores real-world logic in favor of having some fun. (And yes, I love the Crank movies. Sue me.) It sets up its own parameters of ridiculousness and then runs with them, winking a little, but sticking to its story. I don’t know that I’ll ever need to watch it again, but I’m happy that it awoke a little of my 12-year-old soul for a couple of hours.