Big Trouble in Little China

I finally saw Grindhouse last week and I can’t believe it took me this long. “Planet Terror” is a complete blast, note perfect. “Deathproof ” is less than perfect, starting off slow and lingering too long in the set-up, but it pays off big and if it doesn’t make Zoë Bell some sort of star, there is no justice in the world. One of the joys of “Deathproof ” is Kurt Russell, who is a far better actor than he is often given credit for. Which brings me to this week’s column.

Big Trouble in Little China movie posterPerhaps the greatest movie ever filmed in San Francisco, Big Trouble in Little China is the quintessential John Carpenter film. Kurt Russell is at his finest as the epitome of the brash, working-class American: truck driver Jack Burton, the protagonist, but perhaps not the hero, of the movie. Burton is big on ego but low on skills and he swaggers into situations that are way over his head, repeatedly. It’s his friend Wang Chi who clearly has the fighting skills, knowledge and brains that poor Jack lacks.

The action takes place mainly in and under Chinatown, where mystical warriors and regular street gangs collide over territory, power and a green-eyed beauty played by Suzee Pai. Russell plays Burton with just the right mix of overconfidence and obliviousness; a sort of meta-Kirk figure who is utterly blind to his own shortcomings, prone to statements like, “You can all relax, I’m here now” … Frankly, it’s hard to imagine another actor in the role. Only Bruce Campbell has come close to matching the clueless bravado of the classic Russell-type action hero.

The supporting cast includes Kim Catrall as Gracie Law. At the time she was apparently a choice that did not please the studio. Being as she was fresh off Porky’s and Mannequin, they were afraid the public would associate her with that sexpot image. Of course, she later cashed in on it quite nicely for Sex and the City. She’s great as the romantic interest who really isn’t, since once again it is Wang Chi who gets the girl rather than Jack. Dennis Dun, who plays Wang Chi, is great and also appeared in Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness but unfortunately doesn’t seem to have done very much in the last few years.

Victor Wong as wise man Egg Shen, our narrator for the framing sequence, and James Hong as the villainous Lo Pan are both great, and although Wong passed away in 2001 James Hong is still going strong and showing up all over the place including a hilarious turn as Cloris Leachman’s boyfriend in Malcom in the Middle a few years ago.

Originally meant as a period Western, the script was brought into the 20th Century by W.D. Richter of Buckaroo Banzai fame, and a cowboy became a truck driver. The Chinese mythology seems to have remained intact though, and it has a nice authentic feel without being over-explained. Russell had worked with Carpenter on The Thing and Escape from New York and with the lighter tone of this film they made it look easy, like they were having a great time.

~España Sheriff

SF/SF Issue 44, May 2007