Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Big Fun in Little China

Review: Big Trouble in Little China with Kurt Russell, Kim Catrall, James Hong

Traditional wuxia, films in a martial arts fantasy genre that originated in Hong Kong, feature melodramatic acting and slapstick humor, along with silly story lines interspersed with elaborate fight scenes in which the combatants can literally fly, or pause midair in slo-mo. John Carpenter took these crucial elements of Chinese film-style, coupled them with a goofy American hero (Kurt Russell), an abrasive and clumsy activist lawyer (Kim Catrall), staged it in San Francisco's Chinatown, and had an American hit on his hands.
Is this gonna get ugly? I hope not cause I thought what we were, racial differences notwithstandin', was all friends here, all Californians.

The interesting thing is, this movie came out in 1986, 14 years before the critical cross-over success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and 13 years before the state-of-the-art special-effects blockbuster, The Matrix.

Little China has all the necessary components for wuxia: magicians and ghosts, monsters and flying sword fights, gods of storm and lightning, virtuous maidens and their heroic lovers, and wise old-men teachers masquerading as peasants. Chinatown provides a colorful venue for these adventures, with white-slavery rings, gambling, tongs and tea parlors as extra spice.

Even at its age, the movie is hardly dated, mostly because it is actually set in the romantic past. The era that informs Little China is the 40s, a time when the "yellow peril" could be discussed without any snickering or PC outrage. (In fact, a radio talk show in the background over the opening credits features a caller arguing that "Chinese immigration" imperils the American worker.) This, despite Russell's Jack Burton character, who seems hardly to notice the ethnic of his gambling buddy Wang Chi.

While hardly as athletic as a Jackie Chan movie, or as beautifully scripted as Jet Li's Hero, Little China is one of the few movies of its kind that I can watch over and over again. This is an underrated classic
even in its adopted genrewhich continues to succeed because, despite the wild action and fantastical plot, the main characters are likeable and we can identify with them.
You just listen to the ol' Pork Chop Express an' take his advice on a dark and stormy night when some wild-eyed eight-foot tall maniac grabs your neck an' taps the back of your favorite head up against a barroom wall. An' when he looks you straight in the eyes and asks you have you paid your dues? Well you just stare that big sucker right back in the eyes and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like this. "Have you paid your dues Jack?" "Yessir, I have, the check's in the mail."