Clint Eastwood was considered for the lead role in Big Trouble In Little China, but here’s why that would have been disastrous for the movie. After scoring indie hits like Halloween, director John Carpenter made the leap to studio filmmaking with his 1982 remake of The Thing. Despite being hailed a genre classic now, the movie was roundly lambasted upon release for its gruesome special effects and despairing tone. The movie’s failure also impacted Carpenter’s career, with Universal removing him from Stephen King adaptation Firestarter and the helmer instead focused less on passion projects and more on work-for-hire gigs like Christine – ironically, another King book.
1986 saw the arrival of two studio movies themed around Chinese mysticism; The Golden Child and Big Trouble In Little China (which has an upcoming Dwayne Johnson remake). Carpenter directed the latter after rejecting the former, with the helmer being a big fan of Chinese fantasy movies and wanting to bring that style to American viewers. It was filled with spectacular action and sets, but while it became a major cult favorite, it was another box-office bomb. He attributed this to a clash with studio executives during post-production, as they expected an adventure like the Indiana Jones series, but hated that the final product made its protagonist Jack Burton a total idiot.
Big Trouble In Little China sought to subvert the trope of the white outsider coming to save the day for non-white characters. Instead, Kurt Russell’s Burton believes he’s the hero when his “sidekick” Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is actually saving the day most of the time. Russell – who has made a few solid horror movies – has a blast with this and has no issue with scenes where, for example, Jack accidentally knocks himself unconscious during the final battle. Big Trouble In Little China reunited Carpenter with regular leading man Russell too, but the helmer had his sights on bigger names: Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood.
Carpenter’s logic for this was solid, as Eddie Murphy was fronting The Golden Child and was coming off of major hits like Beverly Hills Cop. The director felt he needed a similiar name to compete, but both Nicholson and Eastwood were busy elsewhere. While Carpenter – a major Western fan – might have loved to collaborate with Eastwood, this would have been to the film’s detriment. By this time, Eastwood – who once played a supernatural role – was as much a director himself as he was an actor, and was known for his lean, fast production style. An effects-heavy blockbuster – which Eastwood has rarely touched in his decades-long career – wouldn’t have been to his tastes. Eastwood was also famous for effectively taking over his movies from other directors if he found them too slow, as he had reportedly done on 1984’s Tightrope.
The somewhat tedious process of making a film with so many effects may have pushed Eastwood to take over the production from Carpenter – who is far from a shrinking violet in such circumstances. What makes Big Trouble In Little China so special is the way it mocks its own hero, but while Eastwood had made comedies like Any Which Way But Loose – which is still his most successful film – it’s very hard to see him sending up his macho screen persona in the same way Russell does as Jack. Russell completely commits, but Eastwood may have been cagey and demanded Burton be more heroic or proactive, which would have undermined the whole story. Besides, Eastwood’s sole 1986 movie Heartbreak Ridge made much more than Big Trouble In Little China, so he made the smart career choice from that perspective.
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