Monday Morning Movie Review: Portly’s Top Ten Best Films: #2: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

My Number 2 pick is going to come as a surprise to Ponty, at the very least; it’s certainly a bit of a surprise to me.  It’s not because I don’t love this film—indeed, it may be my favorite film of all time—but because it’s not firmly at Number 1.

My original intent was to place John Carpenter‘s lightning-in-a-bottle classic Big Trouble in Little China (1996) in the top spot, but I realized there is a film that is objectively better (probably many such films exist, but the one I have in mind is, perhaps, the greatest film ever made, and not just because a chubby Internet personality says so).

I’m also thankful that we’ll be both be posting “Hono[u]rable Mention” (HM) pieces before we reveal our Number 1s.  I am realizing that I missed quite a few classics—Ghostbusters (1984) and Blade Runner (1982), for example—and I am increasingly regretting placing Krull (1983) on the list, even at Number 7.  I think it’s a great movie, but in hindsight, it should have been an HM pick.

But enough whinging.  There’ll be plenty of time for that on the HM post.  What about the second greatest film of all time?

Well, as that gigantic balloon reminded us, “China is here, Mr. Burton.”

Categorizing Big Trouble in Little China is difficult.  Wikipedia describes it as “fantasy action-comedy film,” which gives the general idea, while not really grasping the essence of the movie.  Yes, it’s a fantasy; yes, there’s plenty of action; yes, there’s lot of laughs.  But the film is more than the sum of those parts.

I’m tempted to argue that BTiLC is sui generis, a film unto itself, to which nothing can compare.  Indeed, I can’t think of anything to compare it to directly; even comparing it to Kung fu flicks isn’t quite right, although there is some spectacular martial arts and wire work in the movie.  It seems to pull from those films while not actually being one.  It has many of the tropes of Eighties action flicks, but it subverts them (and not in a lame Rian Johnson way).  Any fan of the film knows will note that Jack Burton, the film’s hero (played memorably here by Kurt Russell) doesn’t really save the day—allegedly, I’ll argue!—and that this apparent sidekick Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is the real hero.

The film opens with a brief frame scene, in which Egg Shen explains to an attorney that mystical forces were at work in the story we’re about to witness.  We then cut to Jack Burton driving his big rig, The Porkchop Express, through driving rain on his way into San Francisco’s Chinatown.  Jack wisecracks on his C.B. radio like a no-nonsense talk-radio DJ:

Jack wins a large sum of money from Wang Chi, whose spirit is out of alignment because his green-eyed bride-to-be is arriving at the airport that afternoon.  Jack accompanies Wang to the airport so his friend doesn’t welsh on the bet, only for a gang to kidnap her.  It’s here that Jack meets Gracie Law, the overly earnest white lady lawyer who enjoys meddling in the world of Chinese immigrants.

What ensues is unlike any other film:  Jack and Wang end up in the middle of a bizarre, mystical street fight between two gangs (one of which is peacefully holding a funeral), complete with madmen dressed like the Boxers of 1899 mowing down innocent funeral-goers with machine guns.  Suddenly, The Three Storms—Thunder, Rain, and Lightning—show up, wreaking even more havoc (and performing incredible back-flips).  Jack guns it and runs over a creepily beckoning David Lo Pan:

This point is when the film turns from a typical damsel-in-distress action flick into something… totally different.  Without any warning, we’ve shifted from one world to another one entirely.

As the film progresses, the characters, creatures, and settings grow more and more fantastical.  Even the plot starts to get more ridiculous, as Jack attempts to infiltrate Lo Pan’s hideout as a john looking for a good time.  Throughout, Jack’s very American attitude—“I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t like it, and I’m going to fix it”—combines with Wang Chi’s Confucian calmness in humorous but subtle ways.  Wang Chi usually is the one doing the difficult fighting, with Jack getting the glory.

That said, I disagree—at least in part—with the assessment that Jack Burton doesn’t do anything in this film.  Sure, there’s a lot of bluster, but he does (SPOILER ALERT) catch and lethally throw the knife that kills Lo Pan.  I think that theory comes from the scene in which Jack fires a machine gun in the air, shooting loose the stones from an archway, which knock him unconscious while Wang does the bulk of the fighting:

One could make the argument that there is a thread here about America charging in as the hero while our auxiliaries do the real dirty work and heavy lifting.  I don’t buy it, though; I think the film is exploring the different approaches of East and West to struggle and conflict:  the East is more graceful and subtle, perhaps, while the West (or America, at least) charges in, heedless of the costs or the odds.

But Big Trouble in Little China is not some allegory-writ-large—or, if it is, viewing it as such robs it of some of the magic.  It’s a fish-out-of-water story, but the fish doesn’t know he’s in the wrong pond, and it makes him all the more lovable for it.

I’d be hard-pressed to identify exactly what makes this movie so great.  As I noted earlier, it’s greater than the sum of its parts.  Carpenter’s distinctive style gives the film that look—common in most of Carpenter’s films—that is inviting.  The coloring itself makes us feel like we’re in another world.

And that’s just it—much of my love for this movie is in the feeling.  It’s emotional and visceral.  There are some nights—dreary, rainy ones—that make me want to bask in this movie’s fantasy world, a world that is just below the surface, if we’re hapless enough to drive our truck into an alley in Chinatown.

Tyler - Big Trouble in Little China


10 thoughts on “Monday Morning Movie Review: Portly’s Top Ten Best Films: #2: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

  1. Good choice, mate. Shared on TCW. 🙂

    I’d describe this more of a sword and sorcery flick for the modern age. I loved the film when I was a kid, the last time I saw it I didn’t think it had aged well but I’ll give it another try. It’s action done well with some great characters and yes, it’s a lot of fun. That’s the key aspect as to why the movie did well. You could switch off, lie back and not have to think too deeply. Just enjoy the action, the twists and turns, the really cool bad guys and enjoy your popcorn. They don’t make ’em like they used to. 🙂

    It did surprise me, by the way. I thought this would be rooted to the head of your list, nailed firmly in place with Kamala Harris’s oversized backside on it for good measure. I’m intrigued to see what your number one is.

    Regarding the honourable mentions, I apologise but that piece is going to have to split, maybe into three. I could condense it but I’ll be missing out on some seriously good movies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No worries re: the Honorable Mentions. Feel free to do two (or three!) posts. I’ll do mine in one post, but you’re more than welcome to split yours up. I’ve been making a mental list of the ones that need to go on my list.

      I’m going to be on the road a good bit this weekend, so if you have your #2 ready to roll in the next day or so, send it on over. I’m trying to get everything squared away before the madcap weekend ahead.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll get it written in the morning and send it over. You’re 5 hours behind us, aren’t you? In which case, you’ll get it at 10am your time, at the latest.

        Sorry about my honourable mentions but there are quite a few films that I originally wanted to put in my top ten before I changed my mind. I was looking at adding a memorable moment, not from each film, but some of them and that’ll take up a bit of space. I’ll try to do it in two.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. By the way, do you notice that though Carpenter enjoys his action sequences, when he goes for action over horror, he tends to be give more freedom to his cast and crew whereas when he chooses horror over action, he limits his cast and takes a more hands on role? When you compare his big action films – Big Trouble and Escape from New York – with horrors like Halloween and The Thing, his direction, his imprint becomes less obvious on the action flicks but heavily conspicuous on the horrors.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One last thing.

    One of my friends on TCW, Brian Meredith, has an article up today on the nihilism in films like Thelma and Louise. If you get the time, pop over and have a look. It’s a short piece but it asks the pertinent questions.

    Liked by 1 person

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