Big Trouble in Little China was a box office bomb that was mostly panned by critics and is credited with souring John Carpenter on Hollywood. It’s also a cult classic unlike any other, an action comedy that’s endlessly quotable and eternally rewatchable for its most diehard fans. It’s a film made better over time by its flaws, especially the over-the-top performances, and its campiness has become so popular that even Dwayne Johnson wants to bring Jack Burton back.
But for all of Big Trouble in Little China’s afterlife as a cult classic, this was never the legacy that its original writers, Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, expected for their first screenplay. They believed their idea, a kung fu Western set in 1890s San Francisco, had the potential to not only revive the once-beloved cowboy genre, which was all but dead in Hollywood in the early 1980s, but that it could have become a franchise on the same level as Star Wars. That’s a bold proclamation, sure, but it’s one that this writing duo still believes today. (And, in fact, their story has become something of a franchise, between the BOOM! Comics series, which serves as an immediate sequel to Carpenter’s film, and Johnson’s upcoming remake.)
Perhaps just as interesting as the story of David Lo Pan and his quest for immortality is the story behind the film’s script, one that features everything from aspiring writers with visions of glory to big shot studio executives bent on crushing the little man, with plenty of classic Hollywood politics in between. To tell this story, we spoke with Goldman and Weinstein, W.D. Richter, and Carpenter himself. And it all starts with a cowboy named Wiley Prescott.
You know what ol’ Wiley Prescott says at a time like this?
“The film it was closest to at that time, and this sounds maybe immodest, was Star Wars.”
Before he was the one liner-slinging driver of the Pork Chop Express, Jack Burton was a loner buffalo hunter named Wiley Prescott, a man employed by a railroad company to manage the Chinese immigrants tasked with the hard labor. The Goldman/Weinstein script began similarly to the big screen version, with the pistol-packing Prescott making a seemingly impossible bet with a worker named Sun over whether or not he could shoot the eyes out of a kite dancing way up in the sky. Sun takes Wiley’s bet thinking that there’s no way the cocky cowboy can hit the kite’s eyes, but of course he hits them with ease. Just as Wang Chi doesn’t have the cash to pay Jack, Sun admits to Wiley he’s short on funds – like, all the way short. So, Wiley is forced to accompany Sun on his trip to San Francisco to meet up with his bride, and that’s where all hell breaks loose once Wiley’s horse is stolen, and it’s revealed that the shooter isn’t all that sharp.
“Instead of a comical cowboy hero he’s a blowhard,” Goldman tells us of his story’s lead character. “He has real skills but he’s not this scary cowboy. And in the end, he’s just all talk.”
The main difference between John Carpenter’s film and the original screenplay is the change of setting. Jack Burton didn’t live in 1890s San Francisco. He became a modern man, a truck driver roaming the concrete plains and spouting his road warrior wisdom over his CB radio. By making this film contemporary, Jack became more of a comedic character, as he struggled to comprehend the mysticism that he encountered in his feud with Lo Pan and the eternal battle between the Wing Kong and Chang Sing. Wiley would have been more serious and the action would have been much more authentic.
“Once you make the story contemporary, that changes a lot,” Goldman says. “Our idea was that because it was set in the past it was more like Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the hero wasn’t as ridiculous because he didn’t need to be. Jack Burton is a truck driver who encounters Chinese magic, and by making it contemporary you had to turn it into, really, a full-on comedy. Whereas what we were doing, [was] really the same character and the same situations but because it was in the past he was a little bit more of a lighthearted adventurer. You had to make him savvier.”
Additionally, the original concept was meant to include elements of horror. Nothing about Big Trouble in Little China is scary. Lo Pan’s sorcery merely adds to the film’s comedic appeal, and even his “Sewer Monster” is sort of cute and cuddly in a weird way.