Review for Big Trouble in Little China
Big Trouble in Little China
Director: John Carpenter
"Let's you and me have a little talk friend.....”
It's difficult to come up with much of an introduction for Big Trouble in Little China, because it's essentially a film that does not need one. Most likely; anyone who is aware of the film, has already seen it. Those who haven't... Are certainly even for a wacky treat.
Director John Carpenter's Big Trouble was released in 1986, following a half-decade of mixed fortunes for the man who had achieved unimaginable success with Halloween in 1978. His follow-up, the supremely atmospheric, The Fog (1979), was a modest commercial success, taking twenty times its small budget. 1981's Escape from New York was an even bigger hit, and signalled Carpenter's potential for working with increasing budgets; a far cry from his efforts in the mid-seventies. That would be put to good use the following year, with the bona-fide classic, The Thing. Hindered by a ungainly "R" rating in the US, the film also suffered the misfortune of going head-to-head with the quintessential family friendly hit, E.T, It was doomed to make a small profit, when really, it was possibly Carpenter's finest achievement yet.
He was also achieving great things with these films without sacrificing his signature style and panache, and becoming both more sophisticated and subtle, despite the explosively violent Special FX on show in his most recent work. In 1984, the 36 year-old made arguably his most commercial venture yet, the Jeff Bridges Sci-fi fantasy, Starman. Although this hugely impressive effort only raised a small profit, it was enormously well-received, helping Carpenter's main-stream creditability (for whatever that's worth), and earning an Academy Award nomination for the talented Bridges.
Perhaps just as importantly, this period also introduced Carpenter to rising star, Kurt Russell. The two collaborated in 1979 with the TV movie, Elvis, a big ratings winner for ABC in which Carpenter had a taste of working with veteran actors, and dealing with the specific requirements of the format. Their reunion on the set of Escape From New York was a creative coup that helped the film sizzle with energy, resulting in one of the most satisfying films of either career. This partnership reached a tremendous peak with The Thing, which was also noteworthy for really pushing Russell's acting ability into a new realm.
It's unfortunate then, that Big Trouble in Little China arrived on cinema screens on the back of a lackluster, botched promotional push. Misunderstood by the studio, it was an unwanted off-spring that attained mixed reviews, and disappointed at the box-office. Even more sad, is that this is the film that really marked the end of Carpenter's dalliance with the Hollywood set, as the director slunk away from the studio system afterwards; with very mixed results that never quite attained the massive highs of his career from 1973-1986.
Everybody knows the story by now; Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is witty loner of a truck driver who lands in San Francisco to drop off a delivery in Chinatown. Meanwhile, drinking/gambling buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dunn), ends up owing Jack a princely sum, but has to abandon him to pick his girlfriend from the airport.
Fearful of his winnings running off, Jack accompanies him, in order to be able to retrieve his swag afterwards. However, upon her arrival at the airport, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) is kidnapped by members of a Chinatown gang, The Lords of Death. It's obvious who they're after, as they prowl towards the ladies with sinister Eighties shades covering their faces, while a malevolent hit of signature synth accompanies them on the soundtrack.
Jack though, is preoccupied by the sight of Gracie Law (Kim Catrall), a Lawyer who he fails miserably to woo. When Jack and Wang pursue their fiendish foes to Chinatown, they soon realise they've bit off more than they can chew. Not only do they encounter hoodlums with all manner of knife skills, but also an evil sorcerer in the form of Lo Pan. Turns out that Wang's girlfriend has green eyes, a trait that attracts the decrepit wizard. It also turns out that the delectable Gracie too, has green eyes....
Really, there isn't much too this frankly offbeat, Kung-Fu/Fantasy/Action Adventure/Comedy hybrid. However, Carpenter's film is hardly an attempt to deliver an intricate plot. Instead, it's an utterly barmy slice of hokum, combining exploitation trappings with a somewhat bigger budget, a few star performers, and the expert direction of Carpenter. It's a joyous, slap-dash chunk of fun from beginning to end. Thankfully, it never takes itself too seriously, getting away with presenting eye-wateringly daft monsters and slapdash villains.
Reunited with Cinematographer Dean Cundey, Big Trouble looks absolutely fantastic, making the most of some superb sets and locations. The production design is at times absolutely stunning.
The odd moment of Special FX ingenuity may not stand up as state-of-the-art, but with that said, the practical effects do remain very impressive today. Also familiar to Carpenter fans, will be upbeat, boisterous soundtrack, particularly the title track which accompanies the end credits, sung by Carpenter himself. Definitely one to make the ears bleed!
The cast are uniformly terrific too. James Hong oozes an over-the-top, creepy menace in his depiction of Lo Pan, while Russell is endearingly dopey as the utterly inept Burton. Despite the fantastical elements of the movie, it's actually one of best comedic outings. Catrall is fine too- delivering one of her more likable performances with conviction, despite the absurd dialogue and situations.
Timing is everything in this film. Whether it's Russell's ability to alternate between straight-faced action, and cheesy dead-pan humour, or the juxtaposition of his buddy's heroism with his own ineptitude. In fact, part of the joy here, is that Jack appears largely unaware that he is far from the hero of the piece. Instead, he's an outlandish bystander for the most part.
The gags come thick and fast, and are executed expertly. A personal favourite must be a moment in which Burton's inability to maintain control with a knife is demonstrated to comical effect.
The film is notably stuffed full of stereotypes, from old/wise china-men, to Kung fu experts, and uncouth truckers. But it is so good-natured and fun filled, such grumbling should never register. This is a brilliantly barmy amalgamation of genres that was way ahead of its time; pre-hipster post-modernism at its very best.
Arrow Video's new Blu-Ray release is the sort of superior package that the company has not only become famous for, but is now beginning to receive the industry acclaim and accolades that it deserves.
As anyone who has listened to their collaboration on The Thing will expect, this ported commentary track by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell is wonderfully entertaining. Crammed with anecdotes and stories, it's exactly the sort of banter that perfectly suits a film like this and in fact, a case could be made for this being perfect introductory commentary material.
Be it discussing flaws in special FX, moccasin shopping, or Kurt Russell's need for a pay check, this is delight throughout.
Similarly, included is an isolated score- and given how bloody great it is, this will be the best feature of all for many fans, though it is very much an acquired sensibility.
A seven minute vintage promotional featurette is also interesting stuff, while an Alternative ending delivers the goods. 8 Deleted Scenes, including sequences restored from the work-print are also included. This material varies wildly in quality but is pretty fascinating, and a must for fans.
Arrow's big addition is a collection of new interviews, beginning with a John Carpenter one that runs for 12 minutes. A really quality, in-depth feature, this manages to cover a lot of ground in a very short space of time. Of particular note is the director discussing his frustrations working with a studio, and the lack of understanding of the film from said suits.
Kurt Russell sports some fine facial follicles for his interview, an excellent, good natured, 12 minute piece. Encompassing all sorts of wacky information, including an unexpected Jan Michael Vincent reference, this is a great deal of fun.
The set offers up a compelling 15 minute interview with Dean Cundey who talks a little about his history with Carpenter, going back to Haoween's success.
Stuntman Jeff Imada is also afforded a 12 minute segment in which to discuss his work on the film. Although short, this sort of material is often overlooked outside of action-packed blockbusters, and provides a very intriguing perspective from which to view the craft.
Larry Franco (Producer and Assistant Director), also speaks for a quarter of an hour, and is an extremely likable subject. Franco's presence here also points to the benefit of Carpenter's long-term alliances with crew members. Franco takes us back righto Elvis, and like several of the contributors throughout this set, grew up within the film industry alongside his director . Finally, Richard Edlund speaks for 13 minutes or so about the visual effects, and his role in producing said department. This extra has been included on previous releases however.
-Also included are a Music Video, Photo Gallery, TV Spots and Trailers. The Music Video is genuinely ludicrous stuff, and I defy anyone not to be incredibly amused by it. This is actually pretty exhaustive overall, including six TV Spots, and a ridiculously comprehensive 263 shots in the gallery.
-The package also includes a booklet with a new writing on the film by John Kenneth Muir.
This Blu-ray release is hardly exhibition material, given the age and standard of the source material but it's difficult to imagine it looking much better. There's a nice warmth that shows through on the transfer, without ever appearing soft. Daytime exteriors look tremendous at times, while the presence of a tiny hint of grain will reassure some viewers. In all, it's a very impressive presentation of this film. Likewise, the film is available decent quality 5.1 DTS-HD and 2.0 Stereo Tracks.
An option to purchase a stunning-looking Steelbook rounds off the package, though also available, is the standard version; which features a fine looking reversible sleeve. In either case, Arrow's Blu-Ray is an excellent quality release that should both thrill fans, and help give newcomers the best possible insight as to why this became a cult hit in the first place. It improves upon previous Blu-Ray releases by including the same material, with a valuable set of new ones (even if the best feature is still, easily, the commentary track).
Big Trouble Little China is the sort of cult item that perfectly sums up John Carpenter's output, and as such is unlikely to appeal to many newcomers who may find the genre-defying antics somewhat ludicrous. The inane, crazed vibe of the film is exactly what those of us who liked it first time round enjoyed however! A fantastic effort all round that does justice to Carpenter's wonky but charming vision.