Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
By: Mr Intolerance on December 19, 2009  | 
DVD
20th Century Fox (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0, English DD 4.1. English (FHI) Subtitles. 95 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton
Screenplay: Gary Goldman, David Z Weinstein, WD Richter
Country: USA
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
Some films are like comfort food. You've had a crap day at work, your girlfriend isn't talking to you because you're not a mind reader, you're short of cash, and everything about your life just, at the moment, kind of sucks. These are not the kind of days where you sit down and think, "Fuck it, you know what? I want a glass of water and a green salad. That wholesome nutritious meal will make me feel better." No. These are the kind of days where you act like a man, godammit – you somehow scrounge up the money for a case of beer and the gnarliest meat and cheese heavy pizza you can find, throw good sense to the wind, settle back in the beanbag and feel happy for the 95 minutes it'll take you to watch a film like Big Trouble In Little China, because if you're of a certain age, for that 95 minutes you're a teenager again, and your crap job, unreasonable girlfriend and financial woes don't exist, because all you're wondering is how much cooler your life would be if you could grow up to be like Kurt Russell.

There are some combinations of actor and director that just work, and the combination of Kurt Russell and John Carpenter is one of them. There seems to be an almost immediate and instinctive connection between them that just clicks – think about it: you watch this film, The Thing and Escape From New York, then have a look at some other films Kurt Russell's been in that Carpenter didn't direct, and you're just not getting the actor really hitting his straps the way that he does in those three films. Similarly, look at some of Carpenter's other films without Russell, and sometimes you kind of get the impression that the director has told his actor, "Play it like Kurt", They Live being one of the better examples of the point I'm trying to raise – I honestly thought when watching that film that Rowdy Roddy Piper was trying to be Kurt Russell.

It might be a cliché to suggest that a film "is like a comic book come to life". Sometimes, however, that's the god's honest truth, and Big Trouble In Little China is one such film. Everything in it is larger than life – the bad guys, the action, the snappy tough guy back-and-forth, Kurt Russell's mullet – it's a pretty darn excessive film, to put it mildly, and it revels in that excess with a big old smile on its face. It certainly looks like it would've been a hoot to have been in, and I don't ever think I've heard a detractor of it. It's a man's movie, definitely, on face value one of those real knuckle-dragging bravado-laden blusterers verging on the homo-erotic, that at the same time is very obviously aware of itself and is actually a hell of a lot smarter than a snooty intellectual audience would give it credit for.

"There was nothing, but that's how it always begins."

The film begins in media res with Shen, a tour bus driver from San Francisco's Chinatown being grilled by his attorney over a series of bizarre events culminating in the explosion of an entire city block in a ball of green flame. Furthermore, we're told of a fugitive, one Jack Burton (Russell), and of the involvement of sorcery, demons and "Chinese black magic". It's a neat way to let the audience know what they're in for, and the overtly comedic, tongue-in-cheek nature of the film is addressed right from the get-go, from the script, the performances and the special effects. Carpenter wants you to have fun watching Big Trouble In Little China, and he wants you to have fun immediately.

And so we go back to where the action begins, with our boy Jack Burton, a loud-mouthed arrogant boor of a truck driver who at some point, if you were a fella and you first saw this film as a teenager, you wanted to be. In some ways Jack is a modern day, working class Indiana Jones, resourceful, opportunistic, tough and sometimes amazingly unlucky, just without some of the nobler aspects of Indy's character. He's pulled up in Chinatown on a delivery in his rig, "The Pork Chop Express", and he's about to get a whole mess of surprises on this lay-over, let me tell you.

Jack meets up with his good buddy Wang, who is a little nervous given that he's going to the airport to pick up his fiancee Mao-Yin, who's just flown into town from Peking, imminently to be married to her. However, he's not the only person who's interested in the little lady, and just when you might think nothing had happened but a whole bunch of talk for the last five minutes and, heaven forbid, characterisation, Carpenter cranks the action up another notch. Some street-punks from Chinatown have also turned up and they are not friendly, knocking Jack's arse to the curb and stealing Wang's girl.

"Son of a bitch must pay!"

Jack is not a happy camper, and wants some restitution – preferably of the type that involves him opening up a can of whup-arse on these black-clad jokers. Wang's completely beside himself, having no idea what the hell's just happened, or why Mao-Yin has been kidnapped. Charging around Chinatown in his rig, Jack isn't making any friends, nearly taking out Shen's tour bus, in his efforts to find the kidnappers, although when Wang refers to them as the Lords of Death, you'd have to wonder if maybe only the two of them should be getting involved here. That feeling is exacerbated when our heroes get themselves caught up in the middle of a violent street fight between rival tongs. Cue: neat martial arts beat 'em up! Things are getting pretty hairy down there, and then at the height of the mayhem, some dude in armour and a crazy hat comes flying out of an explosion of green smoke and flame, and everybody backs the fuck right down, especially when he's backed by his two similarly clad homeboys, and armed with some very lethal looking weapons. Plus when they get shot, they don't even so much as blink, so everybody's feeling a little unsettled, as you can imagine. Worse yet, one really creepy-looking motherfucker turns up to really ruin everybody's day, 2000 year old magician Lo Pan, who can take a semi-trailer in the face without it hurting and looks as though he eats babies for breakfast. Things are about to get worse. Wang and Jack react in the only sane way possible – they flee.

"China is here? I don't even know what the hell that means!"

The film takes a breather here, and there's a necessary moment or two of expository dialogue establishing the threat of Lo Pan, and the beefing up of the character Gracie Law (Cattrall, before she went over to the dark side to play an uber-slapper in Sex In The City), a gal Jack had previously tried unsuccessfully sweet-talking at the airport, and Jack's love interest – initially irritating and ensuring that they don't see eye-to-eye, but eventually...well, you've seen the kind of thing before – kinda like all those old Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn romantic comedies. Actually, the film makes a lot of reference to older films – Jack's exaggerated American-ness, deliberate in this situation given that he's involved in a lot of things he has no cultural background in, is accentuated by the John Wayne-like drawl he affects at times (sort of similar to Russell's Clint Eastwood impersonation throughout Escape From New York – it conveys a lot of information quickly to an audience brought up on action films), the plot is as hare-brained and kooky as an old 1940s movie serial a la Flash Gordon, and the characters are, for the best part familiar stereotypes. And Carpenter is a savvy enough fan of movies to be able to bring this pastiche to life and make it work.

Wang comes up with a plan to rescue Mao-Yin, having learned of her whereabouts from Gracie. The only problem they have is having to rely on Jack in disguise as a part of that plan. He has to infiltrate a massage parlour (you know the type I mean...) dressed as and acting like a total doofus in order to find out what's happened to Mao Yin, but his rather all-too direct an approach isn't likely to get him too far. At the same time, Gracie is trying to get a reporter friend of hers to cause a distraction by attempting a story on sex-slave labour and exploitation of women fresh off the boat from China. Trouble is, y'see that an earthquake and a cloud of green flame appear from nowhere and shake things up a little. Turns out that Lo Pan has been looking out for a Chinese girl with green eyes (a rare occurrence, the green eyes marking out their power as mediums), and he wants her, so her sends his homeboys with the big hats (if you've seen the old TV series Samurai, or any of the Lone Wolf and Cub films, you know the kind of hats I'm talking about, obviously that fashion appealed to insanely powerful Chinese martial artists as well as the Japanese) to go and fetch her. Jack tries some fisticuffs to slow them down, but you can probably imagine how successful that approach is.

"Are you ready, Jack?" "I was born ready!"

Time for a new approach – Jack and Wang decide to go to Lo Pan's front for his real concerns, the Wing Kong Trading Company, after some break-neck exposition; the whole "knight in shining armour" approach, bluffing their way through the front door and inside the building. Back at the ranch, Shen has been called in to help, given that he's a dude in the know when dealing with Lo Pan, and also has some more benign magical skills of his own, including fortune-telling – things are ultimately looking good for our heroes, but Shen's fortune telling methods are a little short on detail...

Jack and Wang find the secret entrance to Lo Pan's underground empire, and if things were a little on the weird side beforehand, they're set to become a whole lot weirder very quickly indeed. They're quickly captured – Lo Pan wasn't going to let them through so easily, now, was he – and brought before their captor, who then indulges in a little casual gloating, threatening and exposition. Filling in the narrative blanks here is very much done on the run in Big Trouble in Little China, a lesser director would have had a lot of trouble doing this while keeping the pacing quite so lickety-split, but Carpenter manages it with aplomb. It's one of his strengths as a Director: when he does horror, the atmosphere is never compromised by the pacing, which is always pretty quick, when he does action, as he does here, the audience is kept on the edge of their seat for the entire duration of the film with no time to ask questions. His best films are alive, vital movies that, like a shark, never stop moving on pain of death – if, in a movie like this, you gave your audience the time to think, they'd probably start looking for logical inconsistencies (it's human nature to highlight flaws). Here, you really do just strap yourself in and hope to come out in one piece at the end – it's a good thing. The comedic, cartoonish tone helps a lot in that regard.

Gracie and the rest of the gang are easily captured when they try to infiltrate Lo Pan's pad, which of course just adds another layer of difficulty to what was initially a bit of a Herculean task, but Jack and Wang manage to escape their imprisonment and try to get things back on track, although at times it is a bit like watching the Laurel and Hardy of action films at work (actually, there's a neat Three Stooges moment with guns that reiterates Carpenter's love of film and willingness to thrown in an homage, but never at the expense of his own work). Tooled up, our boys start to kick some butt, but Lo Pan's not being idle himself, needing to marry Mao Yin to remove the curse that's been upon him for millenia. While he doesn't really rate our boys' chances, he's not stupid enough to ignore them, and so things are indeed afoot to protect his own interests.

"Sorry, I was just thrilled to be alive."

The action is pretty much non-stop from this point onwards, not that it ever really let up from the git-go, but it certainly gets even crazier – I'm pretty sure that at one point of the filming, John Carpenter must have said to chief Special Effects boffin Richard Edlund, "Y'know what? Just go nuts." Probably said the same thing to his fight choreographer as well. The escape is going well with Gracie and a number of their other compadres and some random unlucky folks rescued (although they haven't discovered Mao Yin, yet), to begin with, but like I said before, some folks just have big dumb bad luck – and Jack's one of them. Gracie's another – talk about defeat snatched from the jaws of victory... And guess what colour eyes she's got.

And things have just got weirder. Y'know I think in some regards that this is John Carpenter's "everything" movie. You know the kind – the films that simply hurl everything including the kitchen sink at you, films like House 2, Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn, Wild Zero, Junk or Raw Force, where just when you think the well's run dry, the director smiles knowingly at you and pulls the next headfuck out of the bag for your delectation. They know precisely what they're doing, and they know that we're practically daring them to go one better, and when they do, we're like a pack of twelve year olds, a-hootin' and a-hollerin' and throwing popcorn at the screen, loving every minute of it. That's what you get here, and if you don't like it there is simply something very, very wrong with you. Carpenter turns the crank about every 5 or so minutes, provoking gasps of disbelief and delighted laughter in equal measure. He really was a director on the very top of his game when he made this film, and it shows – a real master.

Once more into the breach, and now the rescue is two-fold, and Jack has more than simply his own survival on his mind. Aided and abetted by some new allies, Jack and Wang descend yet again to Lo Pan's underground kingdom and you'll just need to check out the rest of it yourself – you won't be disappointed at the carnival of mayhem and gob-smacking fun that follows as the film keeps trying to outdo itself at every single turn. There's still plenty to go, and like Bachman Turner Overdrive once told us, "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet".
Video
Superb, there's no other word for it, although I've seen screenshot comparisons with the new Blu-Ray edition, and that looks even better, if that's at all possible. Plus, when you've got Dean Cundey as your DP as Carpenter was lucky enough to have on a number of films, you know that what you're looking at is going to rock. Further, Richard Edlund is on board as the director of special effects, and his pedigree is pretty impeccable, having delivered some jaw-droppingly awesome effects for the Star Wars films (you know, the real ones). It all adds up to a pretty bloody amazing looking picture, with vibrant, rich colours and a razor-sharp image.
Audio

Yep – it does the trick. The 2.0 track is okay, but it comes alive in the 4.1 track, kind of like you're in the middle of an all out bar-room brawl for 95 minutes. Or a Three Stooges short film. Either way, it's a win-win scenario – enjoy!

Extra Features
Given that this release has two discs, you'd be right in thinking that you'd be getting a lot of goodness, Extras-wise. On the first disc you lucky people get an audio commentary with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, and if you've heard the ones these fellas have done for The Thing and Escape From New York, you'll know that these tracks are worth listening to – informative about the movie you're watching, and also quite entertaining, listening to two old mates sitting about swapping stories and playing off each other well; definitely worth your time.

Over to Disc Two and you get the following:

Featurette: this one would appear to be from back in the day, being full-screen and a video quality picture. Still, archival footage is always neat to see, and it's always good to see John Carpenter looking less like Skeletor than he currently does.

Deleted scenes: well, the clue to what you're getting is in the title, really. Nothing essential, but again, nice to have for completism's sake. These are scenes that are either extended from what we get in the finished film, or were simply cut from the workprint during editing. Where possible, the producers have tried to present the whole scene in the best possible fashion. So the ones you get are "Airport/Chinatown", "The Dragon of the Black Pool", "The White Tiger", "Gracie's Office", "Thunder's Tour", "Lava Sequence" (I'm very sad that the full version of this never made it – just one more kitchen sink element that could've been...) and "Six Demon Bag" (this last one, better than 11 minutes of a whole bunch of scenes that never made it into the film at all).

2 different US trailers (one cinematic - widescreen, one for TV - full-frame) as well as the Spanish trailer (basically, the extended US cinematic with more action footage, Spanish voiceovers and subtitles).

An extended ending: the one we get is good enough, but this one, cut for pacing is interesting to see, taking us back to that "Son of a bitch must pay" line I quoted before – the more I think about it, the more I think we probably need that scene in the film...

An interview with Richard Edlund, special effects fella – interesting, and gives you the notion that this film's budget was a lot less than you were possibly thinking.

Woah! A music video for Carpenter and his band doing the final song from the soundtrack – umm, yeah. Not one of Carpenter's best soundtracks to begin with, and this clip wouldn't be winning over any new fans, I'm thinking...

Two contemporary text magazine articles from American Cinematographer and Cinefex. Prepare to scroll and squint...

A still gallery

Production Notes: Again, these are text only, but if you wanna read 'em, you'll get some interesting kernels of information

Text filmographies for John Carpenter, Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, Victor Wong and James Hong.

I just wish that the cover art of this release was better – the original movie poster art would have been nice. The cover this release has sucks balls.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
It's a Six-Demon Bag full of fun! With all kinds of martial arts action, fist-fights, demons, monsters, magic, wire-fu, explosions, gunfire, enough machismo to sink a battleship and great tough guy dialogue, the only way you wouldn't be able to enjoy Big Trouble In Little China is if you were already dead. John Carpenter went all-out to entertain his audience with this film, pulling out every and I mean EVERY stop, and I've gotta say, mission accomplished. Big Trouble In Little China is the perfect antidote to your everyday humdrum life.

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