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If you grew up playing games in the 80s, you probably love martial arts. This is normal. It was impossible to pump coins into an arcade machine without experiencing the formative thrill of an enticing nunchuck or alluring shuriken. But to see that stuff outside of games was a rare and genuine thrill - especially if you lived in the UK. For me, nothing represents this quite like the Three Storms in Big Trouble in Little China.
The Three Storms, Thunder, Rain, and Lightning, are the personification of that mystical sense of ‘holy shit, that’s cool’, that hits you hardest when you’re nine years old. There’s probably a Norwegian word for it, but if you’re unfamiliar, it’s the feeling of knowing you love something, but not exactly why. It’s the same sensation I felt seeing a suplex for the first time (opens in new tab), or discovering April O’Neil. (I’m probably oversharing.)
Part of the reason I love the Three Storms is their introduction. Jack Burton and Wang Chi are trapped in the middle of a huge street fight. Warring Chinese clans are knocking lumps out of each other with telescopic Wushu staffs, meat cleavers and the occasional dangerous plank. Just as the good guys start to win - *triumphant hand signal (opens in new tab)* - something happens. This is no longer just a normal street fight.
There’s a flash of lighting, a plume of smoke and a churning ball of green energy. The gangs scatter, terrified. Thunder somersaults out of the viridescent light. Lightning - who’s definitely OP compared to the other two - descends on a fork of raw electricity, with the casual confidence of a fireman sliding down a pole. And Rain? Well, Rain just sort of floats and looks soggy, but he’s really good at high kicks. The saunter through a hail of gunfire, produce bizarre, hitherto unseen weapons, and proceed to destroy the Chang Sing clan, all while wearing gigantic, cool hats.
Now, I was already 100% invested in the fighting before the explosions and the hats and the magic weapons, but the deus ex machina of spinning blades and shouting sent me into palpitations. I immediately wanted to know who they were, what their weapons were called and why the hell they were working for the bad guys. It’s exactly the sort of introduction that you expect of a game, making the Three Storms an excellent reminder of why Big Trouble in Little China is the best videogame movie that isn’t. For better or worse, it has all the tropes of muscular 80s action games: gang violence; massive trucks; feisty love interests who need rescuing. The intro establishes the Three Storms as stone-cold supernatural badasses, while warning you that the heroes will have to face them again later on. Think Chekov’s gun (opens in new tab), but damper.
To continue the videogame analogy, the Three Storms all also come to ignominious ends, which means they’re never more impressive than in their introduction. Rain, somewhat unsurprisingly, is the first to die, after a satisfying wire-fu sword fight with Wang. Lighting lasts the longest, eventually getting crushed by a falling statue as the heroes escape lead villain Lo Pan’s crumbling hideout. But the death that everyone remembers - either because it’s slightly confusing or just plain gross - is Thunder’s. After Lo Pan is killed by Jack (“It’s all in the reflexes”), Thunder inflates himself out of sheer despair. At the risk of hyperbole, I’d say this is the greatest second-in-command death in all of cinema. Thunder is so distraught that he blows himself up like a fleshy balloon, which is simultaneously a noble demonstration of loyalty, and utterly, completely preposterous. It’s the explosive, meaty cherry on the top of Big Trouble’s pulpy cupcake; the sort of death you excitedly discuss with school friends the following day. After all the weapons, weather and East Asian mysticism, you get to see a dapper man in a suit inflate like a microwaved frog. If that’s not an appropriate end for mid-level sub boss, I don’t know what is.