You might be wondering why I think Big Trouble in Little China is on a short list of my favorite movies of all time. My long answer is because it’s visually impressive, funny, action-packed, and overall just a damn good time. The short answer? It’s all in the reflexes.
Kidding aside, I really do have John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China near the top of the list of my favorite movies. The 1986 action flick set in San Francisco’s Chinatown might have been a commercial box office flop when it first released (which honestly still blows my mind), but in the end, it has truly become a cult classic among film fans the world over. It’s a movie that is just as fun and quirky as ever, having (in my opinion) really stood the test of time thanks to solid acting performances, great action sequences, and strong CGI and practical effects that are truly impressive for its time. Let me break down the main reasons why Big Trouble is not only one of my favorite movies, but why I think it’s one of the best action flicks ever made.
Visual and sound effects were, and still are, top-notch – First, let’s talk about the special effects. They were, and honestly they still are, really, really good. From the superpowered Storms to Lo Pan himself, the special effects in this movie were some of the best seen in an action film up to that point, and in a lot of ways were ahead of their time. But outside of the cool electricity powers, monster designs, or the epic wizard battle showdown between Lo Pan and Egg Shen (just to name a few), this movie also had some really impressive overall visual design and cinematography. In simpler terms, this movie is beautifully shot and is visually stunning. There aren’t many, if any, moments throughout the movie where I go “oh wow that hasn’t aged well”, and instead I find myself even on my 500th viewing thinking “wow, this movie still looks so damn good!”. It also sounds incredibly good too, with an awesome soundtrack and overall high-quality sound design. From a design standpoint, I have to give HUGE props to John Carpenter and Dean Cundey for incredible cinematography and music, because Big Trouble is amazing in that regard.
Impressive and exciting action sequences – You can’t have a martial arts action movie and not deliver on, ya know, martial arts action – but boy does this movie deliver! There are some really great battle/fight sequences that are incredibly well shot and choreographed, most notably the huge melee on the back alleys of Chinatown and the final showdown in Lo Pan’s palace. You can tell there was a great deal of detail when it came to really plan these fights out, and outside of a few more gimmicky CGI-esque fighting moments (like Peter Kwong’s Rain flying through the air fighting Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi) everything was executed really realistically, and really well. The fights are just flat out good, and more importantly, they are flat out fun to watch.
FUN FACT: Dennis Dun, who is arguably the movie’s actual main protagonist (and not the bumbling Jack Burton) came into Big Trouble with absolutely no martial arts experience. He trained hard to prepare for this film, and absolutely kicked ass as the heroic Wang Chi in the movie.
Acting performances were stellar – It’s not often that you think of campy action flicks, especially older ones, as having really great acting performances – but Big Trouble in Little China absolutely did. The performances aren’t good because they’re Oscar-worthy, but they’re good because they’re fun, funny, and well-developed – from the evil Lo Pan, played incredibly well by James Hong, to Victor Wong’s Egg Shen, who is easily one of my favorite characters in the whole dang movie. There are fantastic moments and unforgettable one-liners (mostly from Jack Burton, he’s literally full of them all movie long) that really get you invested in these characters throughout the course of the film.
It didn’t take itself seriously – This one is pretty simple: This movie is pretty self-aware and knows how insane and ridiculous this all is, and the audience is more or less represented in the movie by Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton. The whole time this magical world is unfolding in front of our eyes, with fantastical and magical beings and entities little flying through the air and shooting electricity out of their fingertips, we have this regular ole dude who only cares about getting his truck back. Jack Burton is kind of all of us as he navigates this supernatural world, and it’s Kurt Russell delivering the sarcastic one-liners and executing this hilarious fish-out-of-water approach so well that allows us to suspend our disbelief and enjoy the movie more than we probably would have had Jack’s character not existed.