Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Illustrator: Stevie Lacher

“Big Trouble in Little China” should be on everyone’s list of cult-classic films. John Carpenter’s 1986 fantasy martial arts film is fantastic on a number of levels. It reminds one of more current films like “Mad Max: Fury Road” with its non-stop action and mayhem. It leaves most aspects of its storyline unexplained: a villain shoots lightning from his hands, a henchman explodes, a giant monster pops out of a wall—you must simply accept these things. The film subverts expectations, resulting in a lot of unexpectedly intense scenes even for those familiar with martial arts genre tropes. Some scenes seem to contribute nothing to the coherence of the film, but they are a part of the shaggy-dog approach of the filmmakers.

This film is also revolutionary. The protagonist, Jack Burton, differs strikingly from other male action film heroes of the era. In films like “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” the white protagonist is cool and capable, saving the day whatever the crazy scenario, while the Asian supporting cast is relegated to goofy stereotypes. This film reverses that structure. But, based on its poor box-office performance, this went largely unnoticed. Satirizing the average action hero, Burton spends most of the movie being confused, not understanding Chinese culture or the strange happenings occurring around him while his supporting cast actually performs the majority of the badass action moments in the film. In this way, it’s a very interesting film in the martial arts genre, and is definitely worth a watch.