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1986 was a year of relentlessly cool heroes . . . except in the theater I was in
It was the year everyone’s favorite charismatic high school senior took the most daring day off in cinema history; the year Ripley and a cohort of the most badass space marines came to LV-426 and gave an alien queen what-for; and the time Maverick showed everyone on the ground just what king of the sky looked like. It was also the year an older sister journeyed into the dark depths of Jim Henson’s imagination to rescue her younger brother from an evil faerie wearing a scary codpiece and Tina Turner wig. Nineteen eighty-six was a year of competent, smart, and relentlessly cool heroes, doing what they did best, whatever it was. Except in the theater I was in. There, we watched a different hero. He drove a truck called The Porkchop Express and wore a tank top and moccasins in the rain. He had a mullet. He had everything he needed to be a hero—except a clue. The movie was John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, and it was unlike anything an 11-year-old geek-in-training had ever seen before.
The dialogue burrowed into my ears and colonized my brain
And what made it so different? Was it the first three minutes, which featured talk of a building in green flames and a bug-eyed guy shooting lightning from his palms. Or its fights mixing kung fu, meat cleavers, six-shooters, and ancient Chinese rocket launchers? Was it the dialogue, which burrowed into my ears and colonized my brain, forever bonding me to other fans through a series of quotable inside jokes? In a very real way, it was all of those things, but mostly it was Kurt Russell as the ever fearless, ever clueless, totally inept hero: Jack Burton.
Not a comedy, farce, or spoof, per se, Big Trouble in Little China manages to fold mystic martial arts kung fu theater fun into action movie thrills, staple it together with eye-catching special effects, and plug the plot holes left over with spirits-made-flesh, black magic, and the occasional straight-up monster. I still remember being in that theater, doubled over in my seat—my throat raspy from switching between cheers and laughter—and unable to pry my eyes off the screen for fear I’d miss the next “Wow, did that really happen?!” moment.
And through it all stumbles Jack, who never quite knows what’s going on—not as he fights bad guys, not while he solves mysteries, and not as he rescues damsels in distress. Of course, with Jack so oblivious, the job of being smooth, cautious, cunning, and knowledgeable (or even really just competent) falls to a wonderful cast of support characters: the relentless female reporter Margo Litzenberger, the femme fatale lawyer Gracie Law (played by the feisty as ever Kim Cattrall), the unforgettable tour guide and sorcerer Egg Shen, and best of all, Wang. Wang Chi (Dennis Dunn) is the perfect foil to Russell’s Burton: a martial arts master, loyal friend, and all-around Hong Kong leading man. Part of what makes the film so delightfully preposterous is that everyone, audience included, is in on Jack being Wang’s sidekick—except for, you guessed it, Jack.
Big Trouble in Little China is one of those films that helps you give context to generations of movies that followed it. It’s decades later now, and I’ve become a cynical, critical slicer-and-dicer of cinema, but I still perk up every time I hear someone in a room utter, “ ‘Have ya paid your dues, Jack?’ ‘Yessir, the check is in the mail.’ ” Or some other golden line from the film. And without fail, every time someone does, at least one other person in the room smiles, nods, or flips that special hand-gesture that you’ll only understand once you’ve been through a Chinese Hell or two, and helped shake the Pillars of Heaven. No Horseshit.
And so, a toast: