This Classic John Carpenter Picture Is The Greatest B-Movie Ever Made

John Carpenter Godzilla
John Carpenter, on the set of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, 1986. TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection.

I’m going to cut to the chase. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is perhaps the greatest B-movie of all time. And seeing as the celebrated cult classic observes a release date anniversary today, I am prepared to loudly and proudly sing its praises.

Big Trouble in Little China works so well because Carpenter knew precisely what kind of film he was making. He wasn’t trying to create fine art. He was far more interested in serving cinematic comfort food and I am here for it. The beloved director succeeds remarkably in delivering a rip-roaring action spectacle with a hefty helping of imagination, a killer sense of humor, and a dynamite showing from Kurt Russell as lead character Jack Burton.  

The film follows Burton and his trusty sidekick, Wang (Dennis Dun). When a street gang abducts Wang’s fiancé, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), the pair spring into action. To liberate Miao Yin, the duo must find a way to defeat the ruthless leader of the street toughs, David Lo Pan (James Hong). But that will be easier said than done, Lo Pan is a centuries-old sorcerer with impressive martial arts skills and a prowess for dark magic. 

Also Read: Forgotten John Carpenter Thriller Is His Ultimate Unsung Masterpiece

Surprisingly, Big Trouble in Little China didn’t really find its audience until it bowed on home video. The film was considered a box office flop, taking in just over $11 million globally. But that’s no reflection on the quality of the picture. If anything, it’s an indication that Carpenter’s output is years ahead of its time. 

Carpenter’s futuristic genius notwithstanding, I suspect the film took a while to find its audience because mainstream moviegoers didn’t know quite what to make of it. Carpenter and company take influence from the Shaw Brothers’ pictures of years past. If one is unfamiliar with the film’s influences, it might be hard to fully appreciate Big Trouble in Little China. The flick appears a bit campy on the surface. And it is. But that aspect is intended as an homage to the wuxia films of yesteryear. 

Much like the prolific output of Shaw Brothers Studios, the filmmakers behind Big Trouble in Little China merge martial arts with elements of fantasy and Asian folklore. The influence is also apparent in the expertly stylized fight choreography. Carpenter uses wuxia films as a jumping-off point, paying tribute to the over-the-top filmography of the Shaw Brothers and then putting his own spin on the material. 

This wuxia-inspired film is imbued with a hefty helping of imagination. The fantasy elements transport the viewer to another world where anything is possible. Carpenter brings the creativity inherent to the premise to life with aplomb. The set design and locations utilized within make the experience feel fully immersive. 

Also Read: The 5 Scariest Aliens In Horror History [Watch]

Aside from boundless imagination, the film is also full of quotable dialogue. Part of that is thanks to a stellar script from Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, and W.D. Richter. Weinstein and Goldman penned the first draft of the screenplay, with Richter doing an extensive pass to modernize the time period in which the film is set and smooth out rough edges. The screenwriting team collectively brings quality material to the table. But it’s Russell’s mannerisms and delivery that keep us quoting Jack after all these years. Russell understands the kind of character he’s playing and the type of film he’s in. Russell perfectly projects an unearned level of confidence that frequently leads to comic mishaps. It’s impossible to imagine any other actor playing Jack. And that’s a testament to Russell’s prowess as a performer.

Jack Burton plays on similar character archetypes to Ash from the Evil Dead franchise. Like Ash, Jack is overconfident and known to engage in his fair share of buffoonery. Moreover, Jack has a latent ability to kick ass. Also similar to Ash, Jack works as a good-natured spoof of the macho Hollywood leading man trope. Not surprisingly, both characters have become cult icons in their own right.

See Also: John Carpenter’s Underrated Stephen King Adaptation Is Now Free-to-Stream

With all that said, Jack Burton owes a major debt of gratitude to Wang. The character wouldn’t be half as effective without a counterbalance to his showy exploits. Actually, there’s a valid case to be made that Wang is more than a sidekick. He’s really the unsung hero of the film. He’s far more down-to-earth than his more flamboyant counterpart. Wang is the yin to Jack’s yang. And that’s just what a character like Jack needs. A flashy leading man works best opposite a costar that will keep the proceedings grounded.

All in all, Big Trouble in Little China is a killer B-movie that delivers top-notch fight choreography, a dynamite lead character, boundless imagination, and exquisite set design. If you’re keen to check the film out in observance of its release date anniversary, the picture is available as a digital rental and on physical media.  



Sign up for The Harbinger a Dread Central Newsletter