Big Trouble in Little China

Big Trouble in Little China ★★★★★

John Carpenter's "Big Trouble in Little China" is one of the best comic book movies ever made. The fact that the film is actually not based on a comic book is beside the point, because, with its square-jawed hero, heightened dialogue, and characters with names like Gracie Law and Egg Shen, "Big Trouble in Little China" feels comic book-inspired. Its energy, memorable characters and dialogue, and abundance of adventure resemble something born on colorful, two-dimensional, paneled pages. Regardless of where it draws inspiration, the film is a raucous, charm-laden epic, the likes of which are rarely seen.

Myths, legends, kidnapped women, and wise-cracking truckers generate the plot of "Big Trouble in Little China." It is a straight ahead hero quest where the hero might possess little more than empty-headed swagger, and the quest might be more than he can handle. Chinese gangs, ancient demons, and a team of elemental warriors are just some of the obstacles that get in Burton's way and provide heaps of action. At its core, the story follows a standard action-adventure formula and dresses it with interesting characters and solid mythology. The narrative hits the archetypal nail on the head and does so with gleeful personality.

Much of that personality comes from the perfectly cast Kurt Russell as Jack Burton. Russell's Burton is one part Bogart, one part John Wayne, and two parts wiseacre of Russell and Carpenter's own making. He is an in-over-his-head reluctant hero whose charm stems from his wanting to be heroic without having all the necessary equipment to be heroic. Burton is a charismatic knucklehead everyman embodied iconically by Russell. The rest of the cast is equally well-placed, Dennis Dun, Kim Catrall, James Hong, and Victor Wong adding stellar support.

Carpenter keeps his camera generally still, allowing his characters, their dialogue, and the film's action beats to drive the ever-present energy. Production design is rich and the film's cinematography is steeped in rainy streets, shadows, and blasts of neon. Pacing is even, allowing the film to move as fast or steady as the spectacle requires.

Carpenter's most masterful stroke is his and everyone else involved's commitment to the film's tone. "Big Trouble in Little China" is funny but not silly, dark but never oppressive, and fun but never too light. To call it a comedy would be stretching, but much of the film's entertainment value comes from its humor. However the tone should be appropriately described, Carpenter and company sell it wholly and unwaveringly.

An unapologetic collection of comic book sensibilties, pulpy cinematic tropes, and wise-cracking energy, "Big Trouble in Little China" exudes heart, spirit, and adventure. It is humorous, exciting, and instantly memorable. Not only is "Big Trouble in Little China" one the best films of the 1980s, it is one of cinema's adventure greats.

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