Although the original screenplay by first-time screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein was envisioned as a Western set in the 1880s, screenwriter W.D. Richter was hired to rewrite the script extensively and modernize it. The studio hired Carpenter to direct the film and rushed Big Trouble in Little China into production so that it would be released before a similarly themed Eddie Murphy film, The Golden Child, which was slated to come out around the same time. The project fulfilled Carpenter's long-standing desire to make a martial arts film.
The film was a commercial failure, grossing $11.1 million in North America, below its estimated $19 to $25 million budget. It received mixed reviews that left Carpenter disillusioned with Hollywood and influenced his decision to return to independent filmmaking. It has since become a cult classic and has an 82% average rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a steady audience on home video.
Visalia, California Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) wins a bet with his restaurant owner friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), and accompanies him to the airport to pick up Wang's Chinese fiancée Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) to make sure he honours the payment. A Chinese street gang, the Lords of Death, tries to kidnap another Chinese girl at the airport who is being met by her friend Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), intending to sell her as a sex slave. After Jack intervenes, they take Miao Yin instead. In Jack's big-rig truck, he and Wang track the Lords of Death to the back alleys of Chinatown, where they find a funeral procession that quickly erupts into a tong war between the Chang Sing and Wing Kong, two ancient Chinese societies. When "The Three Storms" - Thunder, Rain, and Lightning, mighty warriors with weather-themed powers - appear, slaughtering the Chang Sing, Jack tries to escape but runs over Lo Pan (James Hong), a powerful and legendary sorcerer and the leader of the Wing Kong. Horrified, Jack exits his truck, but finds Lo Pan entirely unfazed and glowing with malicious power. Wang hurriedly guides Jack through the alleys; the two escape the carnage and mayhem, but Jack's truck is stolen.
Wang takes Jack to his restaurant, where they meet up with Gracie, Wang's friend Eddie Lee (Donald Li), and magician Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a local authority on Lo Pan. They try to explain to an incredulous Jack some of the ancient knowledge and sorcery the Chinese brought with them to America, eventually devising a plan to infiltrate a brothel, where they think Miao Yin is being held. The infiltration effort is moderately successful, but the Storms interrupt the operation and make off with Miao Yin, taking her to their master Lo Pan. Jack and Wang track down the front business used by Lo Pan and impersonate electricians to gain access, but are quickly subdued by Rain. After being tied up and beaten by Thunder, the two meet Lo Pan - however, he now appears as a crippled old man. Wang tells Jack that Lo Pan needs a special green-eyed girl to break an ancient curse, and he intends to sacrifice Miao Yin. Centuries ago, Lo Pan, a great warrior and even greater wizard, was defeated in battle by the first sovereign emperor Qin Shi Huang. The Emperor placed upon Lo Pan the curse of No Flesh. Although Lo Pan can be temporarily granted a decrepit body by supplication to the gods, in order for him to permanently break the curse and regain his human form, he must marry a woman with green eyes. This simple act will appease Ching Dai, the God of the East. But to satisfy the Emperor, he must sacrifice her. When Jack and Wang's friends attempt to save them, they are also captured, and Lo Pan notes that Gracie has green eyes, too. Lo Pan decides to sacrifice Gracie, while making Miao Yin his unwilling wife. After getting the drop on Thunder, Jack and Wang escape, and free many women kept in holding cells in the process; a horrible orangutan-like monster recaptures Gracie before she leaves.
Wang and Jack regroup with the Chang Sing and Egg Shen, and as a group they enter an underground cavern to return to Lo Pan's headquarters. Egg pours each of the group a potent potion that Jack says makes him feel "kind of invincible." During the wedding ceremony, a huge fight ensues. Jack is largely incapacitated during the battle, first knocking himself out and then getting trapped under an automaton suit of armour. Wang kills Rain in a sword duel, while Jack and Gracie pair up and chase the newly-alive Lo Pan. Wang joins them, and just when all seems lost, Jack kills Lo Pan with a skillful knife throw. Thunder, too distracted by Wang to prevent his master's death, inflates to an enormous size from dishonoured fury, finally exploding and killing himself. Jack, Wang, Gracie, and Miao Yin are cornered by Lightning in a corridor, who triggers a collapse with his powers. Egg rescues them with a rope and kills Lightning by dropping a stone Buddha statue on him when he tries to follow. After finding Jack's truck, the group busts out and escapes back to Wang's restaurant.
The group celebrates their victory in the restaurant with the rescued women; Wang and Miao prepare to marry, while Eddie is pairing up with Gracie's journalist friend Margo. Egg sets off on a long-due vacation - Jack suggests his homeland, but Egg says that China is in the heart. Jack, presented with a new life with Gracie, instead bids farewell to the group and hits the open road, not wanting to be tied down. Unbeknownst to him, the orangutan-like monster survived the battle in the labyrinth and has stowed away on his truck.
The first version of the screenplay was written by first-time screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein. Goldman had been inspired by a new wave of martial arts films that had "all sorts of weird actions and special effects, shot against this background of Oriental mysticism and modern sensibilities". They had written a Western originally set in the 1880s with Jack Burton as a cowboy who rides into town. Goldman and Weinstein envisioned combining Chinese fantasy elements with the western. They submitted the script to TAFT Entertainment Pictures executive producers Paul Monash and Keith Barish during the summer of 1982. Monash bought their script and had them do at least one rewrite but still did not like the results. He remembers, "The problems came largely from the fact it was set in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, which affected everything—style, dialogue, action". Goldman rejected a request by 20th Century Fox for a re-write that asked for major alterations. He was angered when the studio wanted to update it to a contemporary setting. The studio then removed the writers from the project. However, they still wanted credit for their contributions.
The studio brought in screenwriter W. D. Richter, a veteran script doctor (and director of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) to extensively rewrite the script, as he felt that the Wild West and fantasy elements didn’t work together. The screenwriter modernized everything. Almost everything in the original script was discarded except for Lo Pan's story. Richter realized that "what it needed wasn't a rewrite but a complete overhaul. It was a dreadful screenplay. This happens often when scripts are bought and there's no intention that the original writers will stay on". Richter used Rosemary's Baby as his template, presenting "the foreground story in a familiar context – rather than San Francisco at the turn-of-the-century, which distances the audience immediately – and just have one simple remove, the world underground, you have a much better chance of making direct contact with the audience". He wrote his own draft in 10 weeks. Goldman contacted Richter and suggested that he should not work on the project. Richter told him, "I'm sorry the studio doesn't want to go forward with you guys, but my turning it down is not going to get you the job. They'll just hire someone else".
Fox wanted to deny Goldman and Weinstein writing credit, and eliminated their names from press releases. They wanted only Richter to have credit. In March 1986, the Writers Guild of America, West determined that "written by" credit would go to Goldman and Weinstein, based on the WGA screenwriting credit system which protects original writers. However, Richter did get an "adaptation by" credit for his work on the script. Director John Carpenter was disappointed that Richter did not get a proper screenwriting credit because of the ruling. Carpenter made his own additions to Richter’s rewrites, which included strengthening the Gracie Law role and linking her to Chinatown, removing a few action sequences due to budgetary restrictions and eliminating material deemed offensive to Chinese Americans. The characters in the film reminded Carpenter "of the characters in Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. These are very 1930s, Howard Hawks people." The rapid-fire delivery of dialogue, especially between Jack Burton and Gracie Law, is an example of what the director is referring to.
Barish and Monash first offered the project to Carpenter in July 1985. He had read the Goldman/Weinstein script and deemed it "outrageously unreadable though it had many interesting elements". To compete with rival production The Golden Child’s casting of box office draw Eddie Murphy, Carpenter wanted a big star of his own and both Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson were considered but were busy.
The studio felt Kurt Russell was an up-and-coming star. Russell was initially not interested because he felt there were "a number of different ways to approach Jack, but I didn't know if there was a way that would be interesting enough for this movie". After talking to Carpenter and reading the script a couple of more times, he gained insight into the character and liked the notion of playing "a hero who has so many faults. Jack is and isn't the hero. He falls on his ass as much as he comes through. This guy is a real blowhard. He's a lot of hot air, very self-assured, a screw-up". Furthermore, the actor felt that "at heart he thinks he's Indiana Jones but the circumstances are always too much for him". Russell felt that the film would be a hard one to market. "This is a difficult picture to sell because it's hard to explain. It's a mixture of the real history of Chinatown in San Francisco blended with Chinese legend and lore. It's bizarre stuff. There are only a handful of non-Asian actors in the cast".
John Carpenter had seen Dennis Dun in Year of the Dragon and liked his work in that film. He met the actor twice before casting him in the role of Wang Chi only a few days before principal photography. The martial arts sequences were not hard for Dun who had "dabbled" in training as a kid and done Chinese opera as an adult. He was drawn to the portrayal of Asian characters in the movie as he said, "I’m seeing Chinese actors getting to do stuff that American movies usually don’t let them do. I’ve never seen this type of role for an Asian in an American film". Jackie Chan was at one point considered for the role of Wang Chi but decided after the box office disasters of The Big Brawl & The Protector he should put more time and effort into his career in Hong Kong's film industry with Police Story instead.
The studio pressured Carpenter to cast a rock star in the role of Gracie Law, Jack Burton's love interest, but Carpenter wanted Kim Cattrall. The studio was not keen on the idea because at the time Cattrall was primarily known for raunchy comedies like Porky's and Police Academy. She was drawn to the film because of the way her character was portrayed. "I'm not screaming for help the whole time. I think the humor comes out of the situations and my relationship with Jack Burton. I’m the brains and he's the brawn".
Kurt Russell lifted weights and began running two months before production began to prepare for the physical demands of principal photography. In addition, Carpenter and his cast and crew did a week's rehearsals that mainly involved choreographing the martial arts scenes. 20th Century Fox was afraid that the production would create major overruns and hired Carpenter to direct because he could work fast. He was given only 10 weeks of pre-production.
Problems began to arise when Carpenter learned that the next Eddie Murphy vehicle, The Golden Child, featured a similar theme and was going to be released around the same time as Big Trouble in Little China. (As it happened, Carpenter was asked by Paramount Pictures to direct The Golden Child). He remarked in an interview, "How many adventure pictures dealing with Chinese mysticism have been released by the major studios in the past 20 years? For two of them to come along at the exact same time is more than mere coincidence." To beat the rival production at being released in theaters, Big Trouble went into production in October 1985 so it could open in July 1986, five months before The Golden Child's Christmas release.
Production designer John Lloyd designed the elaborate underground sets and recreated Chinatown with three-story buildings, roads, streetlights, sewers and so on. This was necessary for the staging of complicated special effects and kung fu fight sequences that would have been very hard to do on location. This forced the filmmaker to shoot the film in 15 weeks with a $25 million budget. For the film's many fight scenes Carpenter worked with martial arts choreographer James Lew, who planned out every move in advance. Says Carpenter, "I used every cheap gag – trampolines, wires, reverse movements and upside down sets. It was much like photographing a dance."
Carpenter envisioned the film as an inverse of traditional scenarios in action films with a Caucasian protagonist helped by a minority sidekick. In Big Trouble in Little China, Jack Burton, despite his bravado, is constantly portrayed as rather bumbling; in one fight sequence, he knocks himself unconscious before the fight begins. Wang Chi, on the other hand, is constantly portrayed as highly skilled and competent. On a commentary track for the DVD release, Carpenter said the film is really about a sidekick (Burton) who thinks he is a leading man. According to Carpenter, the studio "didn't get it" and made him write something that would explain the character of Jack Burton. Carpenter came up with the prologue scene between Egg Shen and the lawyer.
Carpenter was not entirely satisfied with Boss Film Studios, the company in charge of the film's visual effects. According to the director, they took on more projects than they could handle and some effects for the film had to be cut down. Richard Edlund, head of Boss Film Studios, said that there were no difficulties with the company's workload and that Big Trouble was probably its favorite film at the time, with the exception of Ghostbusters. The effects budget for the film was just under $2 million, which Edlund said was barely adequate. One of the more difficult effects was the floating eyeball, a spy for Lo-Pan. It was powered by several puppeteers and dozens of cables to control its facial expressions. It was shot with a special matting system specially designed for it.
John Carpenter received a Saturn Award Best Music nomination for this film. With the soundtrack, Carpenter wanted to avoid the usual clichés as he found that "other scores for American movies about Chinese characters are basically rinky tink, chop suey music. I didn’t want that for Big Trouble". Carpenter instead opted for his trademark synthesizer score mixed with rock ‘n’ roll music.
Opening in 1,053 theaters on July 2, 1986, Big Trouble in Little China grossed $2.7 million in its opening weekend and went on to gross $11.1 million in North America, well below its estimated budget of $19-25 million. The film was released in the midst of the hype for James Cameron's blockbuster Aliens, which was released sixteen days after. On the DVD commentary for Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter and Russell discuss this among possible reasons for the film's disappointing box office gross.
On Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator that collects both contemporary and modern reviews, the film has an 82% approval rating based on 38 reviews; the average rating is 6.9/10. The site's consensus reads: "Brimming with energy and packed with humor, Big Trouble in Little China distills kung fu B-movies as affectionately as it subverts them." Ron Base, in his review for the Toronto Star, praised Russell's performance. "He does a great John Wayne imitation. But he's not just mimicking these heroes, he is using them to give his own character a broad, satiric edge." Walter Goodman in The New York Times wrote, "In kidding the flavorsome proceedings even as he gets the juice out of them, the director, John Carpenter, is conspicuously with it." Writer Harlan Ellison, widely known in Hollywood for his brutally honest critiques, praised the film, writing that it had "some of the funniest lines spoken by any actor this year to produce a cheerfully blathering live-action cartoon that will give you release from the real pressures of your basically dreary lives." In his review for Time, Richard Corliss wrote, "Little China offers dollops of entertainment, but it is so stocked with canny references to other pictures that it suggests a master's thesis that moves."
However, in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote, "special effects don't mean much unless we care about the characters who are surrounded by them, and in this movie the characters often seem to exist only to fill up the foregrounds," and felt that it was "straight out of the era of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, with no apologies and all of the usual stereotypes." Paul Attanasio, in The Washington Post, criticized the screenwriters for being "much better at introducing a character than they are at developing one". David Ansen wrote, in his review for Newsweek, "though it is action packed, spectacularly edited and often quite funny, one can't help feeling that Carpenter is squeezing the last drops out of a fatigued genre." In his review for The Times, David Robinson felt that Carpenter was "overwhelmed by his own special effects, without a strong enough script to guide him."
After the commercial and critical failure of the film, Carpenter became very disillusioned with Hollywood and became an independent filmmaker. He said in an interview, "The experience [of Big Trouble] was the reason I stopped making movies for the Hollywood studios. I won't work for them again. I think Big Trouble is a wonderful film, and I'm very proud of it. But the reception it received, and the reasons for that reception, were too much for me to deal with. I'm too old for that sort of bullshit."
It has since enjoyed a resurgence on television and home video, and has received a good deal of retroactive positive press. Empire magazine voted Big Trouble in Little China the 430th greatest film in their "500 Greatest Movies of All Time" list.
Big Trouble in Little China was released on a two-disc special edition DVD set on May 22, 2001. Entertainment Weekly gave the DVD a "B+" rating and wrote, "The highlight of this two disc set – which also features deleted scenes, an extended ending, trailers, and a 1986 featurette – is the pitch perfect Russell and Carpenter commentary, which delves into Fox's marketing mishaps, Chinese history, and how Russell's son did in his hockey game." In his review for the Onion A.V. Club, Noel Murray wrote, "If nothing else, this is a DVD designed for Big Trouble cultists; it's packed with articles from Cinefex and American Cinematographer that only a genre geek would appreciate."
A single-disc movie-only DVD version was later released with the only special features being the Carpenter / Russell commentary and the theatrical trailer.
A Blu-ray Disc edition of the film was released on August 4, 2009. It contains the same content as the double disc DVD release. In 2013 the film was released on Blu-ray Disc in the UK by Arrow Films as a regular case and Steelbook
A tie-in video game of the same name was published in 1986 by Electric Dreams Software for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC. Critical reception was mixed.
On February 27, 2014, BOOM! Studios announced they were working on a comic book series. The comic book is written by Eric Powell and John Carpenter with artwork by Brian Churilla. The series began in June 2014.
BOOM! released a crossover comics miniseries between Jack and Snake Plissken titled Big Trouble in Little China / Escape from New York in October 2016.
A previously projected comic book series previewed by Top Cow Productions at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con failed to appear.
On June 14, 2017, BOOM! announced a new four issue series, to be published in September 2017, called "Big Trouble in Little China: Old Man Jack," written by Carpenter and Anthony Burch, with art by Jorge Corona. Taking place in 2020, Jack Burton comes out of retirement to battle Ching Dai and save the world.
In February 2015, Funko released a line of ReAction and Pop! vinyl figures based on Big Trouble In Little China.
On July 15, 2016, BOOM! Studios announced that they have partnered with Everything Epic and Flipside to create a board game based on the film. It will be a cooperative miniatures game for 1–4 players. It is slated to come out in 2017.
In August 2016, Upper Deck released Big Trouble in Little China Legendary deck-building card game. It is a cooperative game for 2-5 players using the deck-building mechanic in which players purchase cards from a central pool to work together against the "villain" deck. The cards features original artwork based on characters from the movie. It comes with 400 cards and a special playmat, and retails for around $40.
The film's portrayal of the lightning sorcerer/demigod character has been occasionally described as an inspiration for the character of Raiden from Mortal Kombat, introducing the archetype of a straw hat–wearing monk able to control lightning with his hands to Western audiences. (In traditional Chinese and Japanese culture, the lightning god is represented more akin to a traditional Asian demon.) Additionally, the character David Lo Pan has been credited as the original inspiration for the soul-stealing Mortal Kombat villain Shang Tsung.
The twenty-third episode of the second season of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, called "A Chinatown Ghost Story," uses concepts from the film, but renames the antagonist Lo Pan to Ho Chan, and the Storm figure Rain is replaced by Wind. In addition, James Hong (Lo Pan) reprises his Little China performance as the principal villain character.
The song "We Have Candy" by the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord features lead singer Ninja reciting some of Jack Burton's dialogue from the film.
A 2012 parody music video of the song Gangnam Style was entitled Lo Pan Style and featured the storyline and characters from the movie, including a cameo by James Hong.
In June 2015 TheWrap reported that Dwayne Johnson was developing a remake to star as Jack Burton and produce with his Seven Bucks Productions partners Dany and Hiram Garcia. Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz were to write the new script. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Johnson expressed interest in having Carpenter involved in the remake.
Carpenter later said this, "It's very early in the process. I haven't spoken to Dwayne Johnson about any of this...I'm ambivalent about a remake."