Summer of ’86: Big Trouble in Little China

John Carpenter famously commented, “In France, I’m an auteur; in Germany, a filmmaker; in Britain, a genre director; and in the USA, a bum.” Or as another J.C. put it, a prophet is never without honor, save in his own country. Carpenter may have understated his following: He has under his belt one undisputed masterpiece, Halloween, and a handful of films that were initially received with scorn or indifference and are now certifiable cult classics—including Escape from New York, The Thing, and his Summer of ’86 film Big Trouble in Little China.

In 1986 I wrote that this tongue-in-cheek fantasy thriller with arch wit and giddy pace was the most underrated film of the year, and I’m pleased that the years seem to have borne me out in their kindness to Big Trouble in Little China. The film pits a seedy truck driver—a sort of urban, subterranean, blue-collar Indiana Jones—against a centuries-old malevolent warlord for possession of not one but two green-eyed ladies. A good old-fashioned big dumb adventure movie, so skillfully made as to eradicate the “dumb” part, and better than the Indiana Jones films in that its fast-paced high action absorbs you rather than simply wearing you out.

If Halloween showcases Carpenter’s mastery of frame composition and camera movement, Big Trouble in Little China does the same for his sense of montage. The film captures us from the beginning with its rhythm, its momentum, the kinesis of its exhilarating constant forward movement. It is a case of style perfectly matched to content, a narrative of dark cosmic disruption and the struggle to move, as one character says, from chaos into order.

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