Kurt Russell in 'Big Trouble in Little China'

Kurt Russell, who turns 60 tomorrow, has played his share of tough guys on screen, including the legendary badass Snake Plissken in 'Escape From New York' (and 'Escape From L.A.'), Wyatt Earp in 'Tombstone' and, more recently, Stuntman Mike in Quentin Tarantino's 'Death Proof.' Of course, he's portrayed many other types of characters in his long career (starting as a child actor), but his physicality and general intensity equip him especially well for action heroics (or anti-heroics).

Maybe that's why we have such a fondness for Jack Burton from John Carpenter's 1986 martial arts / action / supernatural comedy 'Big Trouble in Little China.' As the wisecracking, dim-witted yet arrogant truck driver who gets involved in a gang-related kidnapping in San Francisco's Chinatown, Russell is a complete self-spoofing hoot, the polar opposite of Plissken and his other dead-serious bad boys.
By the mid-'80s, horror-meister Carpenter was itching to do a martial arts film, and with 'Big Trouble' he delivered a wild, action-packed send-up that was so remarkably ahead of the curve, most audiences and critics didn't know what to make of it. This was Russell's fourth film with the director (including TV movie 'Elvis'), and they were obviously comfortable enough by then to do something this far out.

'Big Trouble in Little China' posterGood thing the movie's so darn entertaining, because the storyline is convoluted and more than a little absurd. Basically, Russell's Burton (sporting an impressive mullet and a Harley Davidson trucker hat long before the latter became retro-fashionable) helps his friend Wang (Dennis Dun) rescue his fiancee after she's kidnapped by a Chinese street gang who take her to a brothel owned by legendary sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong). The protags are aided by Chinatown tour guide / magician Egg Chen (the great Victor Wong) and local lawyer Gracie (Kim Cattrall), who also gets kidnapped because she, like Wang's fiancée, has green eyes -- exactly what Lo Pan needs to resume human form. Got it?

Putting aside the "plot," the movie's remarkable for several things: balletic, high-flying martial arts sequences that anticipated films like 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' etc.; an interesting buddy dynamic with great chemistry between the befuddled Burton and way-sharper Wang (the fast-talking Gracie's also several mental steps ahead of Jack, though she inevitably falls for him); witty, throwaway dialogue that complements all of the insane action; and -- bizarre as the story may be -- a fair amount of actual Cantonese language for cultural verisimilitude.

But mostly there's the engagingly ridiculous Jack Burton. Russell channels John Wayne's drawl, stomps around in tight, faded jeans and knee-high boots like a deranged Snake Plissken, and proves himself as deft with physical comedy as with the fast, funny dialogue. "Are you crazy? Is that your problem?" he asks Lo Pan frankly at one point. He later boasts, 'We really shook the pillars of heaven, didn't we, Wang?" Burton's just too much fun.

'Big Trouble in Little China' received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office upon release, but thanks to home video, it has enjoyed a resurrection and a new generation of fans. Most importantly, it showcased Kurt Russell as a goofy, unexpectedly appealing character who, surprisingly, still seems as cool today as when we first met him 25 years ago.
categories Columns, Cinematical