What happens when a loud-mouthed trucker decides to help his friend rescue his friend’s fiancée, recently arrived from China? Well, you get Big Trouble in Little China, the 1986 John Carpenter film that follows Jack Burton as a definite fish-out-of-water as he navigates Chinese mysticism in an attempt to rescue Miao Yin from the clutches of David Lo Pan, an mysterious figure in Chinatown’s underworld but whose true nature and powers Jack can’t even begin to comprehend. It’s one thing to go up against a street gang, but something else entirely when you are up against an immortal sorcerer and a trio of storm-related demi-gods.
Along the way, Jack gets his truck stolen, they run into local lawyer Gracie Law and tour bus driver Egg Chen (who happens to be a fairly powerful sorcerer in his own right, but likes to play up the tourism part for the locals).
One of the great aspects of this film is that Jack only thinks that he’s the hero, when in reality he is the comedic relief to the real hero, Wang Chi. Even though Jack is ultimately responsible for Lo Pang’s defeat, it is only through the fact that Jack’s one party-trick skill comes in handy for beating him. Wang does the rest of the heavy lifting in the film, be it defeating the majority of mooks, going sword to sword against Rain (and beating him), and simply knowing who to go to what magic enters the equation. All of this acts as a great subversion of the typical white hero with the Asian sidekick. The movie also knows when to explain and when to just go with it. A whole story could surround why exactly the Three Storms are working for Lo Pan, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. They stand as incredible obstacles for the heroes to face, and allows them to rise to that challenge. It is a good reminder that not everything needs to explicitly stated to the audience, and it can still work within the course of the story.
The movie also addresses the wide variety of sources it is pulling from, acknowledging that Chinese mythology is such a hodgepodge that they can pick and choose what they want and leave the rest. There’s a moral somewhere in there about stealing from where you want and jettisoning what doesn’t work for your particular story, especially if you are going for a broad stroke adventure story that doesn’t need to get bogged down in reality.
So, while the special effects might seem dated by today’s standards, it is definitely worth a rewatch if you haven’t seen it recently, and if you haven’t… well, what are you waiting for? And while there is talk of a remake starring Dwayne Johnson I somehow doubt it will possess the same kind of charm as the original.