It Was Originally A Western, And Other Facts About ‘Big Trouble In Little China’

An unconventional 1980s action movie with middling box office returns and mostly negative reviews at the time, director John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China blended the American Western with a classic kung fu movie sensibility and put American everyman Kurt Russell at the center of it all. Russell stars as Jack Burton, a blue-collar truck-driver who gets pulled into a bizarre web of mysticism and note-perfect B-movie schlock, eventually leading to a showdown with Lo Pan (James Hong), an ancient sorcerer dwelling underneath San Francisco’s Chinatown. In honor of this beloved cult classic hitting its 30th anniversary on July 2, here’s a look at some of the more interesting facts about Big Trouble in Little China. (And be sure to check the site next week for a bunch of Big Trouble-related features.)

It Was First Written As A Western

The film’s original screenwriters, David Z. Weinstein and Gary Goldman, set the film in 1880s San Francisco and framed the story as a Western, which starred a character named Wiley Prescott. 20th Century Fox hired another screenwriter, W.D. Richter, best known for directing The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eighth Dimension, to do a re-write. Richter completely redid the script, keeping the story in San Francisco, but updating to a modern era, swapping out Wiley Prescott and his horse for Jack Burton and his semi, (more commonly known as the Pork Chop Express).

Richter had called Weinstein and Goldman’s original draft of the screenplay “dreadful,” and believed that since Rosemary’s Baby had worked in the modern era, then there would be no reason Big Trouble wouldn’t as well. Weinstein and Goldman, who were never invited to the set or been introduced to John Carpenter, still received screenwriting credit, but only after getting the Writers Guild involved. Richter ended up listed in the credits under “Adaptation.”

 The Studio Wasn’t Sold On Kurt Russell

Once John Carpenter was brought onboard to direct, he immediately wanted Russell, whom he had worked with on The Thing and Escape From New York, as Jack Burton. But 20th Century Fox wanted a higher-caliber star. Around this time, Paramount was making The Golden Child, (which Carpenter was asked to direct), another action movie yarn that incorporated themes of Chinese mysticism. Most importantly, The Golden Child had Eddie Murphy’s circa-1986 star-power going for it, so to try and stay competitive, the role of Jack Burton was offered to both Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood, who each turned it down. At that point the studio opted for Carpenter’s first choice, and Kurt Russell won the role of Jack Burton. The movie references this when Egg Chen (Victor Wong, who also co-stars in The Golden Child) offers Jack a .357 Magnum, telling him “it’ll make you feel like Dirty Harry.”

There was a similar issue with the character of Gracie Law, where the studio wanted Carpenter to cast a rock star, whereas Carpenter had Kim Cattrall in mind from the get-go. Carpenter got his way again, and Cattrall landed the role, eager to play a character that wasn’t “screaming the entire time.”

Jackie Chan Was Up For The Part Of Wang Chi

Chan was the studio’s choice for the role of Wang Chi, which later went to Dennis Dun. Chan turned down the role for two reasons: His English wasn’t very good, and after his 1985 movie, The Protector, Chan decided to return to China to focus on his film career there.

They Thought They Had A Hit On Their Hands

A tidbit mentioned on the commentary track: The film had an extremely positive test screening, even though the studio wasn’t especially optimistic about its prospects, according to the The L.A. Times. Regardless, Carpenter and company assumed that the reaction of the test screening audience would carry over to theater-goers, but when it opened on July 4th weekend, it only took in $2 million, and only earned a grand total of $11 million during its run. For Carpenter, it was the last in a string of uneven and largely unsuccessful Hollywood movies, (including The Thing, the Stephen King adaptation Christine and the alien love story Starman), and the experience embittered him toward the Hollywood system, and drove him back to independent filmmaking. His next film, 1987’s Prince of Darkness, saw Carpenter return to his horror movie roots.

A Familiar Costume Shows Up In The Brothel

Not a fact, per se, but when Jack Burton goes in to infiltrate the brothel in Chinatown, he’s wearing a suit that looks a lot like those favored by Rudy Russo, the character played by Russell in the 1980 comedy Used Cars. The familiarity goes beyond the bad fashion sense, though, since Russell seems to channel the creepy smarminess of Rudy Russo throughout that scene.

The Mortal Kombat Inspiration

When Midway was creating the first Mortal Kombat game, the character of Raiden was based on one of Lo Pan’s three storms warriors, and Lo Pan himself was the blueprint for Mortal Kombat‘s main villain, Shang Tsung. Co-creator John Tobias told Gameological that Mortal Kombat was partially inspired by Big Trouble‘s “combination of a Western world [that] meets this Eastern supernatural world.”

There Can Be Only One (Role)

Highlander director Russell Mulcahy had offered the role of Connor MacLeod to Russell, who seemed interested at first, but later turned down it down after a bit of advice from his girlfriend, Goldie Hawn. While Highlander was in production in the spring and summer of 1985, and Big Trouble didn’t start filming until October of that year, with Russell spending more than two months training for the role, it’s nice to think that him turning down Highlander freed up his schedule so he could really commit to playing Jack Burton. Thanks, Goldie Hawn.

John Carpenter Scored The Film Himself

Okay, so this isn’t all that unusual, given that Carpenter is a prolific musician who composes the music on most of his films. The difference with Big Trouble in Little China is he made this particular music video to go along with it. Enjoy your trip into the mystic night.