Blast from the Past: Big Trouble in Little China

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blast from the past
Jack Burton, center, has plenty of pals backing him up as he prepares to face down the evils of Lo Pan. And remember, if they’re not back by dawn, call the president.

This month 30 years ago, a movie decades ahead of its time came out in theaters. I am talking about Big Trouble in Little China, directed by John Carpenter.

At the time, Carpenter was perhaps at the top of his game. He was coming off a streak of what in an earlier age could have been labeled B action or horror movies, but ones that filled audience seats and even brought along some of the critics. Movies like Halloween, The Thing, and Escape from New York, these and others had thrilled movie-goers for nearly a decade at that point.

Unfortunately, Big Trouble in Little China at the time seemed to be a stretch beyond what movie audiences were willing to accept as viable entertainment. The theaters weren’t exactly packed for this film. However, with the birth of at-home video, first with the VCR and later with digital, Big Trouble in Little China found something of a cult following, one that has grown over the years until this movie practically has become a legend.

And why not? Featuring Kurt Russell at his finest and funniest, this film offers some of the wittiest dialogue to hit the big screen during the 1980s. There’s also plenty of action and fantasy to keep the story moving, as well as more than a touch of cheese that easily brings a smile to one’s lips.

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Lo Pan in all his finest glory. Indeed!

In case you’ve not seen the movie, here’s a brief, hopefully spoiler-free synopsis: Kurt Russell is Jack Burton, a truck driver who pays a visit to an old friend, Wang Chi, portrayed by Dennis Dun. Soon after the two meet up, Chi’s girlfriend is kidnapped and our pair of heroes go on a search for her in the seedier parts of Chinatown. Matters take a turn for the worse when Burton’s big rig, the Porkchop Express, is left behind during a gang battle in the middle of the streets, a gang battle in which first appears mystical wizard Lo Pan and The Three Storms, warriors of a sort with strong magical abilities. Burton and Chi then regroup at Chi’s restaurant, and there they gather with others in hopes of finding out what has happened to Chi’s girlfriend. Along the way our heroes receive some help from Egg Shen, played by Victor Wong, who at first seems little more than a dabbler, a hedge wizard, but in truth has more than a little power of his own. Also helping are Gracie Law, Burton’s sort-of love interest as played by Kim Cattrall (way before her Sex and the City days), and Eddie Lee, a friend of Chi’s who is played by Donald Li. One thing leads to another (yes, I’m skipping a lot here) and Burton and Chi lead a small army into the heart of evil wizard Lo Pan’s hideout, with Lo Pan acted by James Hong.

I’ll stop there. Anything more and I’d be giving too much away.

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Burton and Gracie Law eye some big trouble. Almost looks like they’re rubbing up against one another, doesn’t it?

I will say that one of the more enjoyable and humorous aspects of the movie is trying to determine between Burton and Chi who the actual hero is and who is the sidekick, because they are set up in such a fashion. The movie kind of sets it up for Jack Burton to be the hero, but he’s often quite ineffective while Wang Chi gets things done. When Burton is successful at something, it usually comes off as being more by accident than anything. Still, Burton has the swagger of a traditional cinema hero, and Kurt Russell plays the part to the hilt with gusto a great one-liners.

I was fortunate enough to see Big Trouble in Little China when it hit theaters in 1986, but I was only 16 at the time and didn’t fully appreciate it, though at the time I did think it an enjoyable enough movie. I’m not saying a 16 year old wouldn’t “get it,” but that the 16-year-old version of myself didn’t get it. The humor wasn’t exactly over my head, as the laughs mostly aren’t of the cerebral sort, but there was enough nuance and cleverness that I didn’t quite pick up on everything.

Fortunately I saw the movie several more times over the decades, usually on VCR though occasionally it would run on a movie channel. I fully came to love Big Trouble in Little China about the time I hit 30, so maybe by then I was grown up enough to appreciate the humor. Since then I have watched the film numerous more times, and each time fills me with excitement and downright giddiness.

Yes, I wrote “giddiness.” That’s just how funny some of the dialogue is.

Such as, “When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if you paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ole Jack Burton always says at a time like that: ‘Have ya paid your dues, Jack?’ ‘Yes, sir, the check is in the mail.'”

Apparently I’m not the only one to love this film, as its popularity has endured even beyond the movie business.

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Issue No. 6 of the Big Trouble in Little China comic book from BOOM! Studios. Each issue is better than having a six-demon bag!

For the last couple of years, publisher BOOM! Studios has been putting out a Big Trouble in Little China comic book, and recently the company announced it would release a special crossover comic bringing together Jack Burton and another John Carpenter protagonist, Snake Plissken from the famed Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. movies.

On top of that, BOOM! Studios has announced plans to introduce a tabletop game of Big Trouble in Little China. Not much information is available about this game as of yet, but it sounds as if it will be more of a traditional board game than a role-playing game, but we’ll all have to wait and see. Look for it in 2017.

Also, last year the company Funko began to put out action figures and Pop! vinyl figures based upon Big Trouble in Little China.

So, it seems this movie just won’t die. There are even rumors actor Dwayne Johnson (aka. The Rock) is working to develop a remake, and with Hollywood’s love of remakes this seems a sure bet at some point.

If you’ve not seen this movie, I highly suggest it. If you’re a role-playing gamer (which you are since you’re on the Nerdarchy site, right?), then you could do far, far worse for picking up campaign and character ideas. For that matter, you might even come away from Big Trouble in Little China thinking it seems something like the madness of a typical tabletop RPG session.

Now, go watch this movie!

And like Jack Burton always says, “It’s all in the reflexes,” and Stay Nerdy!

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A former newspaper editor for two decades in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, Ty now earns his lunch money as a fiction writer, mostly in the fantasy and horror genres. He is vice president of Rogue Blades Foundation, a non-profit focused upon publishing heroic literature. In his free time he enjoys tabletop and video gaming, long swording, target shooting, reading, and bourbon. Find City of Rogues and other books and e-books by Ty Johnston at Amazon.

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