Big Trouble in Little China:
A Perfect Storm of Happy Accidents and Good Decisions
“Adventure doesn’t come any bigger!”
Big Trouble in Little China is a multi-genre Action/Adventure/Comedy/Fantasy film directed by John Carpenter that stars Kurt Russel, which was released on July 2, 1986. Like many films, the story of its journey from inception to the big screen is complex – any one of the many twists and turns taken during development and production could have easily resulted in a far less successful film that would have been forgotten almost four decades later. Instead, it remains a fan-favorite, cult-classic romp of a film that broke stereotypes and blended genres; and yet, almost unbelievably, it was a bomb at the box office and a financial loss for the studio.
The original script came from writers Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein. The script is not generally available today – many people have tried to find copies of it without success. This was Goldman’s first Writer credit on IMDb, but he later wrote Total Recall (1990) and a few other screenplays. In Weinstein’s case, this is his only Writer credit. This writing team consisted of two total rookies.
The original script was a period piece that had the main character managing Chinese railroad workers in the Old West (the 1880s), and then travelling to San Francisco’s Chinatown, and dealing with kung-fu warriors and ghostly, mystical antagonists to recover his stolen horse. The eventual film was contemporary (to the mid-1980s) and featured a long-haul trucker in San Francisco’s Chinatown who gets caught up in a kung-fu battle between warrior gangs driven by a ghostly antagonist who uses magic – and he must recover his stolen truck. Plot parallelism isn’t the only similarity: in both the original and the revamped script the white protagonist isn’t the typically perfect hero. He has flaws, he’s a bit of a bumbler, and a blowhard. In the film, he’s not even the Hero, he’s actually the Sidekick to the Chinese-American Wang Chi character (played by Dennis Dun), but it’s a subtle differentiation – one that the executives at 20th Century Fox were too color-blinded to see (more on that later).
The Goldman/Weinstein team pitched the script to a very limited audience, claiming that the script would revive the Western as a successful genre (which had waned in popularity by the early ’80s), and it would also be a blockbuster the likes of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. One of Goldman’s former bosses, Larry Gordon, was the President of 20th Century Fox productions at the time, and they purchased the script outright. Gordon loved the thematic elements of the script, but he was famous in Hollywood for always wanting “big changes.” In this particular case here are a variety of reasons as to why he may have wanted the original script changed. Take your pick from various theories: he wanted to put his fingerprints on the film; he wanted to “stick it” to his former employee Goldman (whom he had previously fired); he wanted to cherry-pick the mystical aspects he liked but change other elements like the time period so as not to alienate an audience too much, or perhaps simply make it less expensive to film; maybe he wanted to completely erase the original authors as a power play. Regardless of the reason, the studio executive wanted an overhaul and he brought in W.D. Richter to do it. Richter had several impressive writing credits under his belt at that time: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1970), Dracula (1979), Brubaker (1980) and others. Richter also had just finished directing The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Students of both Buckeroo Banzai and Big Trouble in Little China will recognize similarities in tone between the two scripts, as well as the setting in the contemporary world, but impacted by fantastic elements.
At first, the studio wanted Richter to “update” the script, but then subsequently ordered a complete rewrite. The biggest change that Richter sold the studio on, was to update the time period from the Old West to a contemporary (1980s) setting. He described that as a ‘no-brainer’ which would make the script more easily filmable: locations, wardrobe, dialogue, etc. would all be simplified by that choice because they no longer had to worry about being authentic to a time period that was a century earlier. But he kept the ghostly mysticism, the kung-fu, and most other elements. Richter has said in interviews that he used Rosemary’s Baby as a template, presenting “the foreground story in a familiar context – rather than San Francisco at the turn-of-the-century, which distances the audience immediately – and just have one simple remove, the world underground, you have a much better chance of making direct contact with the audience”.
Here ends the discussion of the script process before filming, except that newbie writers Goldman and Weinstein were very unhappy about the rewrite, and that the studio had taken their names off the script. They fought back hard and appealed to the Writer’s Guild of America to help with their cause. The result of arbitration, before the film was released in theaters, was to give ‘Written by’ credits to Goldman and Weinstein, and Richter got credit for ‘Adaptation by.’
John Carpenter was hired by Twentieth Century Fox to direct, following W.D. Richter’s rewrite. Carpenter was at the time and remains to this day, one of America’s favorite directors. Prior to Big Trouble in Little China Carpenter was known for Horror: Christine (1983), The Thing (1982), The Fog (1980), Halloween I & II (1978 & 1981), as well as Science Fiction: Starman (1984), The Philadelphia Experiment (1984), Escape from New York (1981), and Dark Star (1974). It was a magical match – Carpenter had long been a fan of Chinese kung-fu cinema and the mystic plot points that typically accompany those films. His vision for the film meshed perfectly with the script. Part of that meshing was the smashing of stereotypes.
Carpenter wanted to reproduce the same feelings he experienced from watching Chinese and Hong Kong kung-fu cinema – not American reproductions. Despite sometimes ludicrous plots, Chinese films are authentically Chinese, the actors and their characters ARE Chinese, they are not caricatures. The heroes of Big Trouble in Little China are the Asian characters: Wang Chi (played by Dennis Dun), Eddie Li (played by Donald Li), and Egg Shen (played by Victor Wong). The Caucasian characters essentially provide comic relief: Kurt Russel’s somewhat inept Jack Burton, and the hardcore feminist (what we might call today ‘Karen-like’) Gracie Law (played by Kim Cattrall). The antagonist of the film, a 2,000-year-old, demon-cursed, warrior wizard named Lo Pan was played by veteran actor James Hong, who today at age 93 has nearly 500 credits under his belt. Wang Chi is the hero, Jack Burton is the sidekick – though Jack doesn’t seem to realize it. Wang is an accomplished martial artist fighting competently either bare-handed or with a sword; he also is a trove of Chinese history and mythological knowledge. Burton on the other hand is a posturing, take-charge blowhard, who rarely notices that those around him are more competent than he. Burton has two things going for him: a glib tongue and quick reflexes. The unwarranted bravado of Jack Burton makes him SEEM like the hero that he isn’t. This subtlety in the character was completely lost on Fox studio executives who insisted that Carpenter film an additional scene after principal photography had already wrapped. This is the scene between Egg Shen and a lawyer at the very beginning of the film, wherein Egg touts how much gratitude is owed to Jack Burton for saving his community. Most viewers will understand that statement to be laughable by the end of the film, but to the studio – the buff, white guy with great hair is what mattered most. With the additional scene at the front end, there were only four Caucasian actors in this film – they were ‘the Good Guys’ but not the Hero. The film starred about 20 Asian actors in principal roles, plus dozens more Asian stuntmen and background.
Research has not revealed to me who scripted the additional scene added to the beginning of the film. The only clues are articles saying the “the studio demanded that Carpenter add the scene with the lawyer at the beginning…” and it was done after principal photography wrapped. It’s mostly a short monologue given by Egg Shen. I speculate that the dialogue for this scene was completely written by John Carpenter. In the Director’s commentary on the films’ DVD release, Carpenter says “The additional scene was requested by Barry Diller,” who at the time was the President and CEO of Fox, if I’m not mistaken. John Carpenter is known for not worrying too much about his credits, he’s said “there’s no such thing as ‘a Film By’ because it takes hundreds of people to make a film.” It would not surprise me if he wrote this scene and chose not to give himself a Writing credit. He certainly did not mention that Richter had been brought back in.
The Trivia section for the film on IMDb claims that the Carpenter made his own limited changes to Richter’s script prior to filming, which included strengthening the character of Gracie Law. Other changes removed action sequences because of budget, and some things that might have been offensive to Chinese Americans. In the Director’s commentary on DVD Carpenter revealed that the writer Richter was on set during filming. For some reason, Richter didn’t like Kim Cattrall and he kept trying to rewrite her dialogue. Carpenter eventually told Richter to leave the set because he thought the original dialogue was great.
Big Trouble in Little China is eminently quotable. There is a lot of genius dialogue in the script; certainly, most of it comes from Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), but not all of it. Jack is the guy who thinks he’s the hero (but he’s not) and he is so full of himself that he says things upon entering a room like “Everybody relax, I’m here.” When asked if he’s “ready,” he replies “I was born ready.” He speaks about himself in the third person “You know what ‘ol Jack Burton says at a time like this?” and when the evil henchman replies “Who?” Jack gets upset and yells “Jack Burton! *Me*!” He does have some self-awareness though, he’s not a complete narcissist as evidenced by this line “Sooner or later I rub everybody the wrong way.” Egg Shen is a practical Chinese American who has magical powers, he is given a lot of lines that help rationalize the extraordinary and ground the mystical in our reality. Dialogue like this simply can’t be delivered by the Caucasian characters: “Of course the Chinese mix-up everything. Look at what they have to work with. There’s Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoist Alchemy and sorcery. We take what we want and leave the rest. Just like your salad bar.”
Jack’s unfounded bravado is perhaps even more concretely revealed in the non-dialogue portions of the script. While facing a horde of Bad Guys, he can’t get his gun to work, or he runs out of ammunition. In one scene he makes a dramatic entrance by leaping out and screaming triumphantly while shooting into the air – unfortunately, he’s underground and the bullet causes some plaster to fall from the ceiling, knocking him unconscious for the first few minutes of the big fight scene. Later in that same scene, he manages to stab an armored swordsman but is taken out of the fight again because the heavy swordsman collapses on top of him, and pins Jack to the floor for a couple of minutes. These shots of Jack’s ineptitude are intercut with shots Wang Chi’s fighting brilliance as he drops Bad Guys left and right with martial skill, and flies through the air while sword-fighting with henchmen.
One thing which was not in the script, but was decided on the fly during filming by both Carpenter and Russell – late in the film Jack is reunited with a kidnapped Gracie Law, who is wearing very heavy, glamor makeup. They kiss, and Jack gets his own red lips from Gracie’s lipstick. Although not scripted, they decided to leave the bright red lipstick on Jack’s mouth to ridicule the macho character and further underscore his ineptitude. It stays on his lips for several minutes until he eventually wipes it off while confronting the Bad Guys.
Another ‘Director’s choice’ for this film was to have the actors say their lines quickly. The characters in the film reminded Carpenter of the characters in Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, two Howard Hawk’s films from the late 1930s. The rapid-fire delivery of dialogue, especially between Jack Burton and Gracie Law, was a purposeful, ‘Hawksian’ directing choice.
As I’ve said, this film bombed at the box office. Fox pulled the movie from theaters after only six days! While it was in theaters, it received negative reviews or mixed reviews at best. Siskel and Ebert panned it – “too many special effects” and “Kurt Russell is not a dashing hero here” (Duh!). All of this contrasts sharply with what happened pre-release. Original script author Wiseman said “It was a huge hit when it went on the readers’ circle that they have in Hollywood when agents send it out, and it got the highest readers report possible at 20th Century Fox.” Test screening audiences are alleged to have loved the film. So why did it bomb? As has already been expounded upon above – the studio clearly didn’t understand the film. They didn’t ‘get” the blending of genres, or role reversal of traditional stereotypes. It is an unconventional film. At the time Fox had a hard rule regarding advertising budgets – they would only spend a maximum of $3 million to market any film, regardless of the film cost. The production budget for Big Trouble was $25 million. The box office gross was just $11 million. The studio only spent $3 million on advertising. Not only wasn’t it enough, they did a poor job of it too. Many of the posters featuring Jack Burton didn’t resemble Kurt Russell at all. One simply read “Who is Jack Burton?” It’s a bit of a mystery as to why Fox pulled it after only six days, though. During that period the box office gross for the film was just $11 million. With those numbers, it SEEMS like it should have been given more of a chance. Even flops were typically given a run of two or three weeks. Given what happened on home video I suspect if the film had been left in theaters for another two weeks it would have built a following and greatly benefitted from word-of-mouth advertising. To be fair, there had been some big films released the month prior that were still in some theaters when Big Trouble in Little China was released: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Back to School, Legal Eagles, The Karate Kid Part II, Ruthless People, and others. Just a couple of weeks after the Big Trouble was pulled, Aliens was released and became the big-winner that summer grossing over $183 million.
Big Trouble in Little China received its first positive review in 1992 and went on to gain success in home media after its VHS release in 1996. The CBS Fox people did a better job promoting the home video release than the studio did ten years earlier by issuing a wealth of promotional material, including Chinese food takeout containers decorated with art from the film. A video game for the Commodore 64 came out. Magazines like Starlog and Cinefantastique wrote great articles that garnered more fans. At the time of writing, Big Trouble in Little China has an 82% “Certified Fresh” audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson is currently developing a sequel to this film, as he did with his Jumanji continuations. But who can be sure? It may turn out to be a reboot, or it may not happen at all since he’s been talking about it since 2015 and Johnson currently has 28 projects listed on IMDb as being “in Development,” and none of them listed are Big Trouble in Little China.
- Written by By Robert Cunniff
Den of Geek
Sci-Fi Movie Page
Big Trouble in Little China DVD commentary track by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell
March 25, 2022 at 8:35 am
Great article about one of my favorite movies.