John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986) is, in a sense, the last movie you’d expect to find a political allegory in. Indeed, it seems buried behind a genre mashup of campy humor and campier action melodrama. However, look hard enough, and sure it’s there!
(Kurt Russell) is a trucker who comes into San Francisco’s Chinatown only to find himself in the middle of a cosmic civil war. With Chinese sidekick in two, soon discovers that ancient Chinese factions are fighting a battle that ultimately boils down to the desire of one Lo Pan (Victor Wong) to possess a woman with green eyes. Of course, there are basically no Chinese women with green eyes, but he manages to find not just her but also her immigration rights attorney Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall, prior to Sex and the City and even Mannequin), also green eyed. What ensues is a hybrid chop-suey kung and wire fu/sci-fi/fantasy/ horror/comedy Western mashup.
In , Russell and Carpenter manage to find a unique antithesis to their Snake Plisken (in Escape from New York). While Russell here has the look of a 1980s professional wrestler along with the swaggering walk, vocal characteristics and bravado of John Wayne’s most iconic Western heroes, he also has the bumbling quality of a romantic comedy hero – ala Cary Grant in, say, Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938). Gracie Law, too, embues her character with Hawksian female qualities – fast talk, a no-nonsense approach to nonsense, independent spirit and toughness, and some of the masculinity that Russell’s character would possess but which the screenplay, direction and performance undermine at every single turn of the warped, whirlagig plot. Indeed, the pitch is made at such dizzying, absurdist heights, one wonders how a movie so in love with the movies it’s trying to emulate couldn’t borrow a famous line from Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974): It begins, “Forget it, Jake…”
The film doesn’t outrun sexual implications with Lo Pan’s ritual of rehumanization involving piercing his flesh with a “Needle of Love,” drawing blood in the process – one is, of course, reminded of deflowering a virginal woman. That he squeals like a deflowered virgin female would adds to the creepiness.
The sheer insanity of Big Trouble in Little China is really just a cover, however, for a buried political allegory. In Russell’s Wayne-esque hero who is in way over his head, Carpenter tells a tale of a “dumb American who invades a situation he doesn’t quite get.” Sound like U.S. Foreign Policy during the Reagan era much? Indeed, despite his bumbling, he is somehow viewed (in a studio-mandated prologue made after the fact) in retrospect as a great hero. Despite his bumbling, he does manage to kill Lo Pan, though it is certainly with the help of the women and the Chinese he fights alongside – something John Wayne could scarcely be expected to understand.