Of all the movies shot in San Francisco in the 1980s — from “Star Trek IV” to “A View to a Kill,” from “48 Hrs.” to “Innerspace” — none feels quite like they belong to the Bay as much as “Big Trouble in Little China.”
A box office disappointment that amassed a cult following after it was released on video, the weird, wacky film simply isn’t afraid to let its freak flag fly.
The 1986 film, directed by John Carpenter, screens 7 p.m. Saturday at the Castro Theatre. Critic/curator Jesse Hawthorne Ficks hosts a Q&A with actor Peter Kwong, who plays Rain, one of three weather-themed warriors in the film’s standout fight scene.
Whren the film rolls, after a prologue, we are introduced to Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), driving his big rig through the Marin Headlands and across the Golden Gate Bridge, narrating his own life in his John Wayne-like drawl and cramming a giant sandwich down his maw.
He delivers his load in Chinatown and spends the night gambling with the locals, and especially his friend Wang Chi (Stockton-born Dennis Dun, who began acting in San Francisco at the Asian American Theater Company).
In the morning, they head to the airport to pick up Wang’s green-eyed fiancee, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai). There, Jack flirts with lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), just before a band of villains called the Lords of Death storm the airport and kidnap Miao Yin. The heroes jump in Jack’s truck and head to Chinatown to rescue her.
On the freeway, they pass the Mariposa Street exit, although, according to a 2001 DVD audio commentary track by Carpenter and Russell, Carpenter says this was a “process shot” and Russell and Dun weren’t actually there.
Cut to the famous Chinatown Dragon Gate at Bush Street and Grant Avenue, where Egg Shen (Victor Wong) is driving his rattletrap “Egg Foo Yong” tour bus. He motors through the gate and up Grant for a few blocks.
In the background, we can see the Far East Flea Market and the Four Seas Restaurant, both of which survived well past 1986 but closed recently. We also see a sign for the New Hoa Thai Trading Company, which looks to have been merely set design for the movie.
Egg makes a right turn on Commercial Street, a tiny lane situated between Clay and Sacramento, that runs about four blocks. He starts heading downhill, and who should be coming uphill but Jack and his big rig!
We know that Russell did learn to drive the big rig; more likely it’s a stunt driver behind the wheel during this sequence.
After a near-collision, Jack steers off of Commercial, and Wang tells him to “turn into that alley.” From this point on, we’re on a set in Los Angeles, as Jack and Wang descend into a mystical underworld to face the evil sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong).
The stuff that happens there is exhilarating, strange, mind-blowing and often hilarious, and the mishmash of styles echoes San Francisco itself, with its patchwork neighborhoods changing radically every few blocks.
This dynamic — a jagged, dislocating sense of place — is one of the things that drew Alfred Hitchcock to the Bay Area for several of his films, including “Vertigo” (1958) and “The Birds” (1963).
Carpenter himself, who is a devotee of Hitchcock’s work, returned to The City six years later for “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” (1992).
For its time, “Big Trouble in Little China” was also fairly strong on representation, with its mostly Asian cast.
Of course, the two top-billed actors were white, but as Russell and Carpenter pointed out in their legendary audio commentary track, they both considered Jack the sidekick and Wang the real hero.
Jack is full of swagger but relatively incompetent, at one point spending an entire fight trying to retrieve his lost knife — and even passes an entire scene with Cattrall’s lipstick smeared on his face — while Wang is the one who consistently knows where to go and what to do.
Oddly, the film was originally written as a Western, in which a cowboy rides into old-time San Francisco and spends the story trying to get his horse back.
Screenwriter W.D. Richter, who wrote the San Francisco-set “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) and directed another cult classic, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,” was brought in to make changes.
He suggested moving the story to the modern day. This pleased Carpenter, who is a confessed fan of martial arts films and, working with choreographer James Lew, was thrilled to stage some fight scenes of his own. (Apparently, Jackie Chan was briefly considered for a role.)
Carpenter and Russell both reported that the early response to the film was off the charts, and many were expecting it to be a huge hit. But 20th Century Fox did little to promote it — focusing instead on the upcoming “Aliens” — and it earned only $11.1 million (in North America) against an estimated $25 million budget.
But just like the best of San Francisco, the movie was eventually discovered by weirdos and outcasts and finally became the classic it deserved to be.
As Russell says on the commentary track, “People either love it, or they never saw it!”
IF YOU GO:
”Big Trouble in Little China”
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.
When: 7-9 p.m. (doors open at 6 p.m.) Saturday