On first viewing the movie felt very much to me like nothing more than a cheesy popcorn action flick. I saw it all as just a lighthearted romp through Chinatown with extremely enjoyable yet bemusing magical Chinese mumbo jumbo, the most average of Joes in the protagonist, patriotic trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) doing the whole save-the-world, beat-the-bad-guy, and get-the-girl shtick, leading an ensemble of fun stock characters against a campy as hell villain, Lo Pen (James Hong). It wasn't until later that it dawned on me how that mix of both simplicity and creativity made this movie so brilliant. Jack being such an average Joe lampoons the tough-as-nails white American badass with a minority sidekick being the special someone to take on all the minions in combat and thwart the villain's evil plans. As Carpenter himself has stated, Burton is the sidekick to the ass-kicking, good-natured Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), who is the skilled fighter, largely familiar with the Chinese lore, and whom the stakes are higher for seeing as how the love of his life, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) is whom he is fighting to be reunited with. Burton, in contrast, is a bumbling trucker who can barely throw a punch, is as utterly confused as the audience throughout the course of the film, and has very little chemistry or connection to his green-eyed lady of the film, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall).
Why the movie bombed with both critics and audiences I cannot say for sure. While I am certain opening the same week as James Cameron's Aliens didn't help, reading the critical reviews at the time gives me the impression that like me, people did not know they were getting something new and clever in Big Trouble in Little China, oblivious to all the clever spins on certain tropes in contemporary action movies and instead looking at the movie as a silly generic fantasy action movie. Since then it seems people appreciate those clever storytelling devices more, and combined with the film's unique production design, innovative albeit random practical and visual effects, entertaining fight choreography, and corny yet likeable characters make not only a fun-as-hell action movie with some clever plays on conventional action cliches, but also a largely influential action film that inspired the likes of the characters of Shang Tsung and Raiden from Mortal Kombat, but I would not be surprised if say George Miller took the influence of the "main character being a sidekick in his own movie" spin in Mad Max: Fury Road.