For our second in-depth breakdown, we’ve selected 1986’s BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell and Dennis Dun.  BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA tells the story truck driver Jack Burton (Russell), restauranteur Wang Chi (Dun), and their motley crew’s quest to rescue Wang’s kidnapped bride, becoming embroiled in an ancient supernatural war along the way. 

The Movie

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is movie that marches to the beat of its own drummer, and it makes for a perfect selection for the Six Degrees of Schwarzenegger treatment.  Released in 1986, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was starring in RAW DEAL and Sylvester Stallone released COBRA, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA countered that darker action fare with a relatively light-hearted adventure comedy.  Primarily ignored during its theatrical release, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA garnered a dedicated fanbase in the home video market.  And its campy mixture of comedy, martial arts, and supernatural shenanigans helped the film carve out its own special niche in the catalogue of 1980s action classics.

Over the course of ten podcast episodes, we are going to explore every aspect of this outrageous cult classic in obsessed fanboy detail.  We are going to cover every kick and every chop, and we won’t be pulling any punches!


The Men

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA marked the fourth collaboration between John Carpenter and Kurt Russell.  John Carpenter was already a well established director by 1986 and a master of genre filmmaking.  With classics such as HALLOWEEN, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE FOG, STARMAN, THE THING, and others under his belt, Carpenter and long since proved that he was supremely capable of elevating a simple genre premise to brave new heights.  With BTILC, Carpenter turned his gaze to the martial arts genre.  Carpenter had been a fan of Kung Fu movies ever since his first exposure the genre in 1973, enamored by their joy and innocence, and in BTILC, Carpenter saw his chance to put his unique touch on a new genre. 

Kurt Russell had cut his action movie teeth and enjoyed box office with success with Carpenter earlier in the 80s, but a series of flops had Russell nervous to take the lead in a big budget film.  Carpenter won Russell over by telling him he just wanted to make another movie with him and wasn’t concerned about Russell’s box office track record.  BTILC was another box office flop in Russell’s losing streak, but it did catapult Russell to a string of box office hits including TANGO AND CASH, BACKDRAFT, TOMBSTONE, and STARGATE.

Dennis Dun was a virtual unknown when he was cast to play the second lead in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA.  His only prior film credit was 1985’s YEAR OF THE DRAGON, but John Carpenter saw in Dun the charisma and talent needed to stand shoulder to shoulder with Kurt Russell.  Dun went on to a lengthy career appearing in THE LAST EMPEROR and reteaming with John Carpenter in PRINCE OF DARKNESS.

Kim Cattrall, Suzee Pai, and Kate Burton represented for the ladies, with Cattrall using her comedic talent to great effect as she deftly deflected Kurt Russell’s romantic advances.  John Carpenter filled with the cast with other great character actors such as James Hong, VIctor Wong, Donald Lee, Al Leong, and Jerry Hardin.  Special mention also for Jeff Imada, a stuntman and featured extra in BTILC, who forged a relationship with John Carpenter and went on to serve as stunt coordinator for most of Carpenter’s films moving forward.  Imada parlayed his work for Carpenter into an incredible career that saw him serve as stunt coordinator on the likes of THE CROW, THEY LIVE, and FIGHT CLUB.  Imada also was stunt coordinator for the unbelievable fight scenes in THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM.


The Myth

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA began its life as a western set in 1899 Chinatown penned by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein with Jack Burton as a cowboy delivering pigs to San Francisco’s Chinatown to feed Chines railroad workers.  Their vision was an epic adventure in the vein of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or ROMANCING THE STONE.  Twentieth Century Fox gave the script to W.D. Richter, fresh from directing the endlessly imaginative and influential box office flop THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BONZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION.  Richter pitched the idea of making BTILC a contemporary story. 

By all accounts, the production of BTILC was a ton of fun for everyone involved and much different form the typical studio production.  For starters, almost the entire cast was comprised of Asian actors, a rarity for the time and even today.  Once the decision was made that the lead character of Jack Burton would be more of a bumbling loudmouth sidekick than a traditional hero, the pieces began falling into place.  The movie took on a more comedic and idiosyncratic tone, with the filmmakers looking for every opportunity to add a laugh or make Jack Burton the butt of a joke.

The production of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was not without its fair share of speed bumps, most prominent among them protestors offended by the mere premise of the movie.  Despite the approval of the film’s Asian cast and crew, who defend BTILC and John Carpenter to this day, the film’s production and release was the target of numerous protests from Asian-American activists.  Many were protesting the idea that “a macho, smart-aleck white truck driver” would roll into Chinatown and save the day, which to be fair, was the story that Fox was trying to market.  They were unaware that Carpenter’s vision for the Jack Burton character was that of “an American fool in a world that he doesn’t understand” and that Carpenter was going through great lengths to consult with the cast, crew, and advisors and take great efforts to avoid offensive Asian tropes.  But many of the protestors could not get past the fact that the film was about gang warfare in Chinatown, which could, of course, devolve into cheap stereotypes without a watchful eye and respectful treatment.

The negative aura and word of mouth surrounding the film took its toll at the box office, where BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA could be described as nothing short of a disappointment.  Time has been kind to BTILC, however, and the film is now viewed as a cult classic with a loyal fan following.  I attended a screening in Atlanta in August 2018, and it was filled with fans laughing, cheering, and hanging on every word of this beloved classic.  So join us for our journey because this should be a lot of fun!  We’ve got a very positive attitude about this.