Friday, November 18, 2011

Scene Stealer: Big Trouble in Little China

One of my favourite movies is without question John Carpenter’s action-kung fu-comedy Big Trouble in Little China. It was released in 1986, but it is as fresh today as it was then and it’s as entertaining as ever. I’ve had difficulty selecting a scene stealer from other films that I love, but no film was as hard for me to choose from as this one. I think it’s because Carpenter packed his story of good versus evil with so much great stuff - brilliant set design and cinematography (including the notion that beneath Chinatown’s exterior is a cavern of temples, dungeons, and secret chambers), humour and farce, awesome martial arts, elements of magic and mysticism, superb villains including The Three Storms and a 2000-year old evil sorcerer, and undeniably grand special effects for its time.

Kurt Russell shares the hero role with Dennis Dun who play, Jack Burton and Wang Chi respectively, two friends who become embroiled in the dark Chinese sorcery that resides in the underbelly of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Russell’s Burton is the source of so many laugh-out-loud one-liners that are delivered in unstopping rapid fire throughout the film. Russell created a great character in Burton – a loveable buffoon and wiseass with über (yet displaced) confidence and a big mouth. He’s so out of his element and is repeatedly taken by surprise, but it doesn’t faze him. He’s got more balls than brains and his attempts at heroics continually result in his falling victim to a series of hilarious mishaps, but he stands with his friends to fight for what’s right and he’s got superb reflexes to boot.

In an early scene, Wang and Jack make a bet. Wang, who’s just lost all of the money he’d saved to welcome his fiancée back from China, tries to make the money back by betting Jack double or nothing that he can split a beer bottle in half with a meat cleaver. When Wang brings the cleaver down on the bottle, it shoots across the table and Jack catches it before it clocks him in the face, proving he has brilliant reflexes. This scene is important in establishing a key hero’s gift in Jack that Carpenter deliberately delays using until the climactic scene stealer at the end of the film.

Jack comes face to face with Lo Pan – a 2,000-year-old fleshless sorcerer thanks to a curse by the Gods for his offences. Lo Pan longs for a girl with green eyes whom he must marry to break the curse and to become flesh again. In the sequence of climactic scenes at the end of the film, Lo Pan has married Wang’s green-eyed fiancée – Miao Yin – breaking the curse on him to become flesh and whole again. A huge battle has ensued between the forces of good – Jack and Wang et al – and the forces of evil – Lo Pan and his army led by The Three Storms (bizarre beings that seem to have supernatural powers representing Thunder, Lightening and Rain.) Lo Pan flees his wedding ceremony and escapes to his lair with Jack and Gracie Law – Jack’s love interest in the film – in hot pursuit. Jack and Gracie share a passionate kiss before Jack goes toe-to-toe with Lo Pan and winds up confronting him, unaware, with a mouth smeared in red lipstick. Jack whips his knife at Lo Pan trying to kill him, but he misses the mark and Lo Pan picks up the knife and hurls it at Jack. At this point, Carpenter calls upon Jack’s special gift – his awesome reflexes – and Jack catches the knife, hurls it back at Lo Pan, stabbing him square between the eyes. The evil sorcerer falls like a ton of bricks and Jack responds with another of his classic one-liners, “It’s all in the reflexes.”


  1. Such a wierd and wonderful film. Found it pretty scary as a kid! Was 'Showdown in Little Tokyo' in any way related to this or did I imagine it? I always wanted to see that film.

  2. It must be 20-25 years since I've seen this, but isn't there a scene where Russell's character points at some Chinese writing on a wall, asks his partner what it says, and the partner recites it in Chinese? After seeing Russell's look he then says in English that he's just kidding and the writing says "Keep Out". I remember laughing at that.

  3. That knife scene was the only productive thing Burton did throughout the movie yet Egg Shen still praised him like the second coming of a god. Hilarious.

  4. @Pete - yep, it's got a lot of weird stuff in it, but it's such a fun movie. I don't think Showdown in Little Tokyo was related to Big Trouble, but it's also a fun flick. I don't like it as much as Big Trouble, but it's worth checking out. Gosh, it's been ages since I've seen that film. I had completely forgotten about it!

    @Chip Lary - Yes - I'm pretty sure that scene happens in the film. It's got so many funny lines. I actually googled them after writing this post to remind myself of them all.

    @Ian Montgomery - yes, Jack came through when it counted most and he was given high praise indeed for finally bringing down Lo Pan.


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