Big Trouble in Little China is one of my favorite movies. I have no way of tracking this, but I am fairly confident that it’s among the top three movies I reference in this blog. I’ve already written about one of the film’s subplots at length. It’s the rare movie I was able to love as a kid because of its basic elements (good vs. evil, supernatural powers, Kim Cattrall) and later enjoy as an adult because of the irony found in the dialogue. In terms of special effects, the film hasn’t aged well – a point my students were more than eager to point out – but other than that, time has not dulled my love for the film at all. In fact, I have come to love the movie even more in the past year because I realized something I hadn’t noticed before.
Jack Burton, played by Kurt Russell, is the Caucasian hero thrust into an ancient Chinese struggle between good and evil. I first saw him through the childhood filter of black-and-white. He was a good guy, that was that. Like Hulk Hogan, I could only view Jack Burton as exclusively good; his more complex character traits fell unnoticed. He was the anti-Darth Vader, himself the embodiment of a “bad guy.” As a child, I missed the best thing Big Trouble in Little China has to offer. Jack Burton is a hero, but he’s mostly a baffoon.
The movie’s greatest comedy comes from the discrepancy between who Burton thinks he is and what he really is. His swagger, his bravado, his tough-guy exterior are the most obvious components of his character, and it’s clear in the way he carries himself that none of those things is part of a front. That’s the way he sees himself, but it’s not the way the movie actually portrays him. The first clue is the scene after his truck is stolen. He speaks harshly to an employee of his insurance company. He’s angry, he’s yelling, and he’s wearing a blue silk robe while his clothes hang-dry.
Next, Burton goes undercover as Henry Swanson as he infiltrates the White Tiger brothel in hopes of finding Miao Yin. Burton plays the geek so convincingly, it’s as if he didn’t need to dig too deeply to find him. “Henry Swanson’s my name, and excitement’s my game,” he says. Soon, when the 3 Storms converge upon the building, Burton’s swagger emerges. He walks right up to one of the Storms (DESPITE ALREADY WITNESSING THEIR IMPERVIOUSNESS TO GUNFIRE), lifts the Storm’s straw hat, then punches him in the face twice. When the the two punches have no effect on the Storm, Burton smiles and nods – what else can he do? – then gets kicked across the room.
During their daring escape from the Wing Kong Exchange, Jack and Wang are attacked by a small group of enemies. Jack empties the clip as a few of them come through the door, rendering his gun useless. He drops the gun, drops to his knees, and hastily tries to remove his knife from its sheath on his ankle. Meanwhile, Wang is going Bruce Lee, taking on all comers and kicking ass. The camera returns to Jack, still on one knee. He’s in a rush. Maybe he’s anxious. Whatever the reason, he finally rips the knife out of its sheath, but it slips from his hand and flies across the room. He rises and runs to retrieve it. By the time he he recovers the knife and hits the pose in this picture, Wang has put down all of the bad guys.
Moments prior to the climactic battle scene beneath the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, Burton announces his presence with authority by shooting his gun into the air. The bullets dislodge concrete from the ceiling above him and they crash down onto his head, rendering him unconscious.
When he comes to, he attempts to enter the fray where he is attacked by a slow moving warrior (human?) in heavy battle armor. It isn’t heavy enough to stop a blade, apparently, because the kneeling Burton rolls onto his back, kicks his knife through the bottom of its sheath, lifts his leg, and impales the warrior in the mid-section. The warrior’s armor is heavy enough, however, to make sure that it – and the dead weight of the warrior – are enough to pin Burton down on his back. He’s stuck there as the battle rages on around him. He lets a mild epithet fly.
In fact, the only time Jack actually succeeds is when he isn’t trying. He arrives at the final showdown with Lo Pan with lipstick vertically marking his lips. He had just kissed Gracie Law. Of course before the battle can begin, he sets off on a final lecture aimed at Lo Pan regarding the running death count, among other things. Eventually, Thunder takes off after Wang, leaving Jack, Lo Pan, Miao Yin, and Gracie for the film’s climax:
I apologize for the crude video. It was the easiest way. Anyway, there’s so much to love. Lo Pan is flesh. Jack’s got one shot to give this story a happy ending… and his misses by what? 2 feet? The entire scene is high comedy: Lo Pan and Miao Yin watch the knife fly by, then turn to look at Jack. Jack’s reaction – Russell’s greatest performance in this movie – is perfect. It’s the I-screwed-that-up-pretty-badly-and-there’s-nothing-I-can-do-about-it-now face, which while animated, actually underscores his failure given the circumstances. He looks to Gracie Law who shoots him an exasperated look of disappointment right back.
But then when it looks like Jack’s done for, he catches the knife and hurls it right back into Lo Pan’s forehead. It was pure reaction (and probably something he drank). When he says “It’s all in the reflexes,” it’s a call back to the scene early in the film when he caught a bottle Wang thought he could cut in half. The entire purpose of the bottle scene is to set up the knife catch and throw. It’s exactly the same. Maybe Jack Burton can do some amazing shit – but only when he’s not actually trying to do amazing shit.