When it hit theaters thirty years ago, Big Trouble in Little China pulled disappointing numbers and then faded from view. In the years since, the camp comedy/action film has become a cult favorite among its fans. Hollywood is even looking at a remake now. but the movie turned out totally different from what it was first conceived to be. Writers Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein had high hopes for their idea of a kung-fu Western set in 1890.
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.
It wasn’t contemporary, and even more important, it wasn’t a comedy.
“We felt like we were writing a brilliant movie that would be the next Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Goldman says. “It was a very unusual project, and it still is. There’s never been anything like it. So trying to do something unusual was a little bit of a risk, but we had great confidence that we could pull it off. Then we created a template for something new and wonderful that audiences would like it. We wanted to do a movie that would take this whole genre of Chinese fantasy and martial arts movies and make them accessible, re-do them with an American or Western sense of characterization and plotting, and bring that spirit as a new kind of influence into Hollywood filmmaking.”
The finished film was very different. So what happened? Goldman and Weinstein tell the saga of the making of Big Trouble in Little China at Uproxx.