Big Trouble in Little China: Tina Turner Was Wrong–We DO Need Another Hero

Review of Big Trouble in Little China, directed by John Carpenter

By ALEXIS NEAL

Jack Burton is nobody special. He’s just your average red-blooded American—a loudmouth truckdriver with a gambling habit and a knack for getting into trouble. When his friend Wang’s fiancée Miao Yin is kidnapped by sex traffickers, Jack agrees to help get her back. This ends up being more complicated than he expected. Before long, Jack finds himself smack in the middle of a longstanding Chinese gang war … and the supernatural interference of some very unpleasant fellows. It turns out that the lovely Miao Yin, a rare green-eyed beauty, caught the eye of legendary bad guy Lo Pan, a 2,000+ year old ghost-demon-sorcerer, who needs a green-eyed girl to break the centuries-old curse that has denied him a physical body all these years. Lo Pan stole Miao Yin from the sex trafficking gang, and now Jack and Wang are going to steal her from Lo Pan. With an assist from some of the boys from Wang’s hood, of course, as well as the neighborhood magician (and tour bus driver) Egg Shen—and the lovely (and also green-eyed) attorney Gracie Law (yes, that really is her name). But Lo Pan and his minions are a tough bunch, and before long Gracie joins Miao Yin. Both damsels are very much in distress. Will Jack and company be able to defeat the bad guys and save the girl(s)?

This is an excellent example of the 1980s version a ‘B movie’. The plot borders on nonsensical, the dialogue is cheesy, and the effects are laughable. Yet, as is so often the case with objectively unimpressive films, Big Trouble in Little China (1986) has wormed its way into the hearts of Americans to become a cult classic. Jack Burton is no Arnold—he can’t kick like JCVD, punch like Stallone, or toss off a snappy one-liner like John McClane. Still, of all Kurt Russell’s many action roles, Jack Burton is among the best-loved. He may not be terribly bright, or a particularly good fighter, but he’s willing to try, and we can’t help liking him. And Carpenter wisely compensates for Jack’s long-on-charm, short-on-skill qualities by feeding the audience a steady string of competent fighters—Wang (and company) v. Lo Pan’s flunkies makes for a pretty entertaining fight scene.  Then, too, there’s the flat out bonkers-ness of the plot itself: Lo Pan, now as an impossibly old man in a wheelchair, now as a towering, heavily made up weirdo floating through walls; the supernatural flunkies who shoot lightning; the bizarre ceremony to test whether the green-eyed ladies are qualified to break the curse; the crazy wedding get-ups they wear; Lo Pan’s improbably labyrinthine lair. This is the stuff of which great B movies are made.

While listening to Carpenter and Russell’s commentary for the film* (yes, I am that person), I was struck by something they said. Jack Burton is the ostensible hero of the film, the main character. Wang, his friend, is the sidekick. But throughout the film, Wang is far more heroic than Jack. Wang is determined to save Miao whatever the cost; Jack would much rather collect his gambling winnings and leave. Wang turns out to be a surprisingly agile and effective fighter; Jack is constantly dropping his knife or accidentally injuring himself. Wang takes out minion after minion, armed with nothing more than his bare hands; Jack can’t figure out how to operate a gun. Wang leaps into the thick of the battle; Jack spends most of it incapacitated in one way or another. True, Jack is the one who {SPOILER ALERT} finally takes out Lo Pan, but only after Wang and Egg Shen have mopped up pretty much all the bad guys. Carpenter and Russell acknowledge this, laughing that Jack’s actions are all sidekick, but he doesn’t know it. In his own mind, he’s the hero.

 

I have to admit, I can identify—and I suspect I am not the only one. From my perspective, I am the main character of my life. It’s about me. I am the main actor, and everyone else, by virtue of not being me, is peripheral. The only way other people can be elevated to the role of ‘actor’ (as opposed to merely being ‘supporting actors’) is by increasing their interaction with and effect on me. They become relevant by being relevant to me. I am the center of my own life narrative. I face obstacles and overcome them (or not). I encounter opposition (real or perceived) and react accordingly. I succeed. I fail. I I I. It’s the Me Show.

But that’s not how the world really works. I am not the hero. That role has already been filled. The whole universe and everyone in it from the dawn of time to the end of ages are merely bit players in a story about Someone Else. My life matters because of what it says about Him. He’s the main character. He did the saving. My contribution was, well, getting myself into a big, rotten, stinking mess. His contribution was reaching down into the mire to save my sorry soul. Every teensy bit of progress I’ve experienced in my life is the result of His work. He fights sin in my life; my efforts are the palest imitation of His effectual acts. I’m not the hero. I’m not an ‘actor’. Heck, I’m not even a supporting actor—best case scenario, I’m an uncredited extra. If I were to be nominated for an Oscar for my performance, it would be for something like ‘Woman at restaurant’ or ‘Girl carrying books.’ I’m so far from being the center of the story that it’s laughable.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I don’t matter to God—that you don’t matter to God. We do. So very much. So much, in fact, that the world’s greatest Hero became a man and took on himself the punishment I earned—you earned—by dying a horrific, humiliating death on the cross. He paid our debt in full, and was resurrected and is now interceding for His precious children at the right hand of God the Father in Heaven. We do matter. He does love us. God is big enough and sovereign enough to care deeply about all the billions of people He’s created since time began. He’s working in the lives of those He created, and nothing happens to a single one of them without His go-ahead. The very hairs on our heads are numbered. Not even a sparrow—not even a bacterium—dies without Him noticing.

But at the end of the day, I don’t really get the impression that, as Americans, we struggle with having too low an opinion of ourselves. We may have ‘low self-esteem’ or a ‘poor self-image’, but we are still the main thing we’re thinking about. We may think we’re fat, or ugly, or bad at math (though if we’re honest, all too many of us think we’re the bee’s knees), but we still feature ourselves as the center of the action. And the idea of being relegated to the role of an ‘extra’ terrifies us. We’re Americans! We matter! We deserve a starring role in our own lives! Our lives are about us!

C.S. Lewis captures this idea beautifully in his novel A Horse and His Boy. Bree, a talking horse, having abandoned a friend out of cowardice, is now overwhelmed with shame and hesitant to enter into the land of Narnia. He was supposed to act like a hero, and he failed; as a result, he doesn’t deserve to go to Narnia to be with the other talking animals, and instead he plans to go live with the dumb animals of Calormen. A wise old hermit (every story needs a wise old hermit) takes him to task:

You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses. Of course you were braver and cleverer than them. You could hardly help being that. It doesn’t follow that you’ll be anyone very special in Narnia. But as long as you know you’re nobody special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse [...] (273)

This quote has become my mantra for remembering my place in the world. Again, in one sense, I am very special: the God of the Universe loves me—me!—and sent His son to die for me. But in another sense, I am nobody special at all. I am one of many. I am a member of the body of Christ, and I am created for His glory, not my own. It’s His story, not mine. Just as Narnia is about Aslan, the world, history, and heaven are about God. Like Jack Burton, I may sometimes think that it’s all about me, but one day everyone in heaven and on earth will know who the real Hero is.

*Thanks to the guys over at the Christian Humanist Podcast  for bringing the Big Trouble in Little China commentary to my attention.

_______________________________________________________________

Alexis Neal is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area. She regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.

  • Lisa

    Love this!! This has long been one of our fave ridiculous movies, and is one from which we often quote (“it’s all in the reflexes!”). What a wonderful perspective–especially tying it up with Bree, from my fave if the Narnia series. I have often lamented my supporting role in my own story without realizing it is SUPPOSED to be that way! Well done and thoughtful!

  • http://quantum-meruit.blogspot.com Alexis Neal

    Thanks for reading, Lisa! I’m ashamed to say, I actually had my first exposure to this film just last week … it was long overdue, I know. Better late than never, though. :) Glad you enjoyed the review!


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X