Kurt Russell Shows Comedic Chops in "Big Trouble"
Sometimes what looks like a sure thing isn’t necessarily a sure thing. After numerous test screenings of Big Trouble in Little China, director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell received so much positive feedback they were sure the film would be the biggest hit of their career. Alas, it was not to be as the $25 million film failed to find its audience and only brought in a little over $11 million at the box office. Audiences flocked to Top Gun, Crocodile Dundee, Aliens and Star Trek IV rather than take a chance on this offbeat action-comedy that was saved from obscurity and gathered a cult audience due to its heavy play on HBO and the home video revolution.
Though I can’t prove this, I have a feeling that those who did see the film failed to generate the most powerful form of advertising a movie can get – positive word of mouth. I suspect that many initial viewers weren’t quite in on the film’s joke, namely that the film’s main character - clueless, overzealous truck driver Jack Burton (Russell) – was not the hero of the piece but rather the bumbling sidekick who, if he does anything right, is done solely by accident.
The film runs a brisk 99 minutes and Carpenter makes every second count as the story hits the ground running and seldom slows to catch its breath. Burton heads to San Francisco’s Chinatown to hook up with his old buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) and agrees to accompany him to the airport to pick up his fiancée Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), an emerald-eyed beauty from the Orient. However, things go awry just as she steps off the plane as she’s kidnapped by the henchmen of David Lo Pan (James Hong), who he must marry and then conduct an ancient rite with in order to become young again. Burton and Wang set out to get her back but it’s far from easy as they must do battle with three warriors who personify the very elements themselves – Thunder, Rain and Lightning – as well as infiltrate Lo Pan’s stronghold which is guarded by numerous warriors and monsters and rigged with deadly booby-traps.
The shortsighted executives at 20th Century-Fox suggested Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood for the role of Burton and only when they both turned the project down was Carpenter able to go with Russell, who was his first choice all along. Having already collaborated on Elvis, Escape from New York and The Thing, the duo were excited to undertake what they envisioned to be a lampoon of typical action films with the actor doing a broad John Wayne imitation as Burton ends up causing more harm than good as Wang Chi must save the day time and again.
I’ve always considered Russell to be the most underrated film actor of his generation; he fully invests himself in every role, is at home in any genre and brings a degree of believability to each project he undertakes as he never breaks character while pushing himself at every turn. His comedic skills are on full display here as he plays Burton as an overzealous fool. Always one step behind the action, creating havoc in his wake, Russell’s clueless reactions are spot on in their timing while his overly macho line readings elicit one laugh after another.
As with most films of this sort, Big Trouble in Little China is better seen with an appreciative crowd and you’ll get the opportunity to do just that as the Art Theater will be screening it as their late night feature this Friday, Saturday and Wednesday at 10 pm. Find out for yourself why Burton proudly says, “Sooner or later, I rub everyone the wrong way.”