How does Big Trouble in Little China follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey breakdown?
Welcome to another installment of our series A Hero’s Journey Breakdown where we explore Joseph Campbell’s mythological storytelling structure and how iconic films fit into that mold.
Christopher Vogler’s approach to Campbell’s structure broke the mythical story structure into twelve stages. For this series, we define the stages with simplified interpretations:
- The Ordinary World: We see the hero’s normal life at the start of the story before the adventure begins.
- Call to Adventure: The hero is faced with an event, conflict, problem, or challenge that makes them begin their adventure.
- Refusal of the Call: The hero initially refuses the adventure because of hesitation, fears, insecurity, or any number of other issues.
- Meeting the Mentor: The hero encounters a mentor that can give them advice, wisdom, information, or items that ready them for the journey ahead.
- Crossing the Threshold: The hero leaves their ordinary world for the first time and crosses the threshold into adventure.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero learns the rules of the new world and endures tests, meets friends, and comes face-to-face with enemies.
- The Approach: The initial plan to take on the central conflict begins, but setbacks occur that cause the hero to try a new approach or adopt new ideas.
- The Ordeal: Things go wrong and added conflict is introduced. The hero experiences more difficult hurdles and obstacles, some of which may lead to a life crisis.
- The Reward: After surviving The Ordeal, the hero seizes the sword — a reward that they’ve earned that allows them to take on the biggest conflict. It may be a physical item, or a piece of knowledge or wisdom that will help them persevere.
- The Road Back: The hero sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but they are about to face even more tests and challenges.
- The Resurrection: The climax. The hero faces a final test, using everything they have learned to take on the conflict once and for all.
- The Return: The hero brings their knowledge or the “elixir” back to the ordinary world.
Here we turn to the John Carpenter classic Big Trouble in Little China.
Note: As with any application of story structure or formula, this is just a hindsight interpretation and implementation of The Hero’s Journey to this cinematic tale. There can and will be variances.
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The Ordinary World
Jack Burton is the ultimate macho, truck-driving protagonist with John Wayne bravado. When he’s on the road, he’s radioing quips over the airwaves.
After he unloads his pigs in Chinatown, he drinks and gambles with the locals. He and his friend Wang are the last ones left at the table. Jack wins the final bet, but Wang needs a ride to the airport to pick up his bride-to-be Miao Yin.
Call to Adventure
At the airport, Jack crosses paths with Gracie Law, a friend of another Chinese girl that a Chinese gang — the Lords of Death — was targeting to kidnap and sell as a sex slave.
Trouble ensues. Miao Yin is kidnapped by the gang instead. Jack tries to fight but is taken down quickly by one of the gang members. Jack and Wang chase after them, leaving Jack’s Ordinary World well behind him.
Refusal of the Call
Jack’s refusal of the call is brief and doesn’t come until after he crosses the threshold of the back alleys of Chinatown. His refusal is present within his sole initial interest of wanting to get his truck back. That’s all he cares about. He has seen enough and doesn’t want to get involved, but he also wants to help his friend Wang find his fiancée.
Meeting the Mentor
Wang is a mentor to Jack, with his knowledge of Chinese lore and the gang culture within Chinatown. But the quintessential mentor is clearly the older Egg Shen. He’s very knowledgeable about the Chinese legends and their presence within Chinatown. And later on in the story, he proves that he’s also a powerful mystic as well.
Crossing the Threshold
Jack and Wang follow the Lords of Death to the back alleys of Chinatown. A Chinese funeral procession blocks Jack’s big semi. Another gang shows up. Two ancient Chinese societies — Chang Sing and Wing Kong — begin to battle as Jack and Wang are stuck in the middle of the fight.
Suddenly, “The Three Storms” – Thunder, Rain, and Lightning — appear, quickly killing most of the Chang Sing.
Jack struggles to get his semi through the crowd and out into the open streets, but a man in ancient Chinese garb stands in his way, seemingly run over by Jack’s semi. Jack gets out and finds Lo Pan unharmed. Lo Pan begins to glow with magical light, blinding Jack. Wang helps Jack escape through the alleys, clearing his eyes with water. They escape, but Jack’s truck is gone.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies
Wang takes Jack to his restaurant. Gracie, her journalist friend Margo, and Wang’s friend Eddie Lee are there. They are quickly established as allies to Jack. It is here that Jack learns the rules of the Special World that he’s about to face — as well as who his enemies are.
The group prepares Jack as he infiltrates the brothel where they believe Miao Yin is being held. But before they can save her, the “Three Storms” appear and take her away. Jack tries to confront them but fails.
Jack and Wang track down Lo Pan’s front business and impersonate phone company employees to gain access. They enter an elevator that takes them down into Lo Pan’s Lair. Jack and Wang are captured and beaten by Rain. They then go face-to-face with Lo Pan — now appearing as a crippled older man.
The others attempt to save Jack and Wang but are captured. Jack and Wang overcome Thunder and escape while freeing many women being kept in holding cells. During the escape, a beast under the rule of Lo Pan grabs Gracie. The others don’t realize she’s gone until they’ve fled Lo Pan’s security in Egg Shen’s bus.
Both Wang and Jack’s romantic interests are now in peril. Lo Pan — needing the powerful green-eyed women — plans to sacrifice Gracie so he can be full-flesh again. He’ll keep Miao Yin as his wife.
Jack and Wang meet up with the Chinese society of Chang Sing — accompanied by the mystic Egg Shen. They enter an underground cavern to return to Lo Pan’s Lair. Knowing that they need to take a different approach, Egg gives each of them a potent potion that makes them feel invincible. This will help them as they take on their biggest obstacles yet.
The Road Back
Jack has returned to Lo Pan’s lair, this time with an army of Chang Sing at his side. Just as they are about to engage Lo Pan and his men during the ceremony, they are discovered. Jack shoots his gun into the stone ceiling above him, ready to fight, but is hilariously knocked out by the rubble that the shot dislodges. Wang, Egg Shen, and the Chang Sing battle with Lo Pan and his men as Jack remains unconscious.
Jack awakens and finally manages to take part in the battle. He fights valiantly.
Wang kills Rain in a sword duel as Egg Shen faces off against Lo Pan. Jack and Gracie chase the newly-alive Lo Pan. Wang meets up with them as Thunder squares off against them both. As Wang and Thunder fight, Jack kills Lo Pan with a skillful knife throw. Thunder explodes in a rage.
As Jack, Wang, Gracie, and Miao Yin flee, Lightning triggers a collapse of the corridor with his powers, Egg rescues them with a rope and kills Lightning. As the battle with the Wing Kong guards continues, Jack finds his truck and the group finally busts out and escapes back to Wang’s restaurant — victorious.
They celebrate. Wang is back with Miao Lin. Eddie and Margo are now apparently a couple. And Egg Shen readies for an extended vacation. While Gracie and Jack are clearly attracted to each other, Jack opts to go back on the road to resume his trucking life.
While on the road, Jack is back in his truck, quipping on the radio in Jack Burton style. He’s learned a lot about the unknown world out there. And he faces one last off-camera test as Lo Pan’s beast is revealed in the back of Jack’s semi.
We don’t see what happens, but we do know that Jack Burton is going to prevail. He has the “elixir” of knowledge, and he has his truck back. He’s on the open road — his territory. The beast will be no match for him.
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