Now for yet another movie that wasn’t taken seriously by audiences at first.
John Carpenter’s 1986 flop Big Trouble In Little China was intended at the time to be a big hit, but looking back now it’s almost the definition of a cult classic. It’s an early entry in the East-Meets-West genre, crudely tossing an obnoxious American trucker into a convoluted martial arts fantasy amidst all sorts of cheesy special effects and winking humor. This is a movie with so many volatile ingredients; had it tipped the scales too far at any point (too weird, too serious, too funny etc) and the whole thing could very easily have been an unwatchable disaster. Yet Carpenter and his crew managed to nail the perfect alchemy which resulted in an endearing, hilarious and truly one-of-a-kind experience. Even its imperfections– among them a sloppily constructed mythology, dialogue so blunt it sounds like it was written by Jack Kirby, ambitions that outstripped the current state of martial arts choreography/special effects, Kim Cattrall’s acting– are somehow endearing.
So while it’s a shame the movie didn’t catch on at the time and prompt studios to make more of the same (perhaps even a sequel?), in the end it’s unlikely this lightning could have ever struck twice.
1) Chang Sing vs Wing Kong
- The Chang Sing, an old Chinese society that’s good.
- The Wing Kong, an old Chinese society that’s bad.
Both are filled with able-bodied kung fu warriors and are armed with an assortment of swords, knives, machetes, sticks, cleavers and various firearms (including one tommy gun). Also joining the party at the very end will be the mystical “Three Storms,” but they contribute so little we won’t discuss them much here. Ditto for the film’s protagonists, who mostly just observe from Jack’s truck.
Most of the combatants are unrecognizable stuntmen, but noticeable among the bad guys is Jeff Imada, legendary Hollywood stuntman and coordinator.
The Setup: Our heroes, Jack Burton and Wang Chi, travel to San Francisco’s Chinatown to save Wang’s fiancee, Miao Yin, from her fresh-off-the-plane abduction by Chinese gangsters. (This broad-daylight kidnapping isn’t even the tenth weirdest thing to happen in the movie.)
Their pursuit leads them to a narrow alley where they come close to a funeral procession consisting of dozens of Chang Sing members, honoring a fallen leader. But Wang has barely finished explaining this to Jack when the Wing Kong stroll in from behind the truck, ready to confront their ancient rivals in an ambush.
The Fight: There’s a brief standoff as both sides brandish their weapons and glare angrily. It’s finally broken when one of the Tongs unload with a machine gun, prompting a hail of bullets from the other side. Sings and Kongs both fall, until each side is apparently out of ammo. Then both come out from cover and there’s a longer stare down.
The “Chinese standoff” (as Wang calls it, with hilarious seriousness) ends when both sides scream and charge at each other. They collide in a huge, bloody martial arts brawl.
What follows is very well done, if not spectacular, example of a chaotic free-for-all. There’s kicks and punches and stabs and chops and smacks and all sorts of delightful mayhem. It’s pure Red Shirt on Red Shirt violence– we don’t know the names of any of the participants, and only from context (and a couple colorful casting/costume choices, on the bad guys’ side at least) can we even infer who some of the lead fighters on each team are. Both heroes & villains suffer their share of losses.
The martial arts choreography’s about as good as you can expect in a (somewhat) mainstream Hollywood action film from the time period– fun, varied and cool-looking, if a little stiff by modern expectations.
Eventually the pace picks up (via rapid editing) a bit, and it seems the odds are beginning to turn in the Chang Sings’ favor. But before that can get too out of hand, the battle is interrupted by the Three Storms, demi-godlike warriors loyal to the Wing Kong’s leader. They arrive one after the other, each in a way that corresponds with their powers and names: Thunder emerges from out of a loud explosion, Rain glides down from overhead after a brief downpour, and Lightning appears from a lightning bolt.
The Storms execute a bunch of scary moves and provides some super-intense glares, then they all line up together to stare down the shocked gangs. Several Chang Sings raise pistols and unload at the mystical warriors, but their bullets seem to have no effect.
In response, the Storms simultaneously draw their curved blades and fling them at the Chang Sings, with deadly accuracy. Jack & Wang take this as their cue to book it, and drive through the narrow alley. Before escaping they have a brief encounter with the intangible form of Lo Pan, the film’s villain, but it doesn’t come to much. More on him later.
Again, all well done fun even if it’s not amazing. It serves as a pretty good escalation to the movie’s stakes as established so far– an obnoxiously awesome trucker gets embroiled first in a kidnapping plot, then in a kung fu gang war, and now in a magical epic. Or at least it would, if the studio-mandated prologue hadn’t spelled out right from the beginning that the movie would eventually dive headfirst into Eastern mysticism.
Ah, well. Regardless, the best is yet to come.
Coming Attractions: The movie gets even weirder, in the best possible way.