Big Trouble in Little China Blu-ray Review
Trouble's longevity and popularity looks set to win over hi-def lovers everywhere
Alongside 1982's The Thing, John Carpenter's biggest box office flop-cum-cult-favourite has just got to be his anarchic, comic-book, wild-card pick 'n' mix of genres, Big Trouble In Little China, that hit the big screen in the summer of 1986 and sank quite dismally on both sides of the Pond.Like so many other misinterpreted, overlooked and neglected gems home video represented not only something of a rebirth and re-evaluation, but a source of immortality that continues to draw in generations of fans even today. And now, with Arrow giving Carpenter's unrivalled, thrill-and-laugh-a-minute oriental fantasy caper a fine release on UK Blu-ray, Big Trouble's longevity and popularity looks set to win over the hearts of hi-def lovers everywhere.
Truck-driving meat-head, Jack Burton (an on-fire Kurt Russell), hits San Francisco's Chinatown andinadvertently gets pitched him into the middle of a gang-war, which then leads to a mysterious encounter with some supernaturally endowed Triad elementals and, as if that wasn't enough, he will undertake a reluctant mission deep into the subterranean underworld of Little China to rescue his buddy’s abducted fiancée from a diabolical 2000-year-old sorcerer. He will be dazzled by ancient magic, butt heads with monsters and badass warriors, and defy death at every turn with his unique brand of klutzy, cack-handed courage in this fabulous tongue-in-cheek adventure.
But as Jack would say, “It’s all in the reflexes.”
Pretty much everything I said about Fox’s region A US image applies here. Arrow’sregion B UK disc carries the same transfer. So, they haven’t fixed what wasn’t broken, and the result is very impressive.
Encoded via AVC, Big Trouble In Little China's 2.35:1 image looks extremely good to me. Whilst no-one would ever assume that the film had been made yesterday, it certainly scrubs up very nicely, thank you. With no real damage, wobbles, judders, flecks or specks to mar the image, Jack Burton's adventure is highly film-like and unmistakably respectful of its source. Aye, folks, that means there's no DNR and the film's grain is intact.
Colours are way better than they have been seen previously in standard definition. Reds, blues and greens stand proud. Plentiful neon signs and supernatural laser lights - from Egg-Shen's Shaolin hand-grenades to the ghastly ectoplasmic yawns of Lo Pan - really shine through. The latter could have been prone to warping, but the effect remains stable and smooth. Earthy tones for the wooden-walled White Tiger whorehouse and the external shots of the streets of Little China look natural and fine. The garish colour scheme for the demon-lord's hidden citadel look equally resplendent, even if the clarity and gloss has a tendency to make the set rather tacky. The film does not drip colour, by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly looks vibrant, clean and lively at all times. Skin-tones are spot-on, although you have got some enhanced green eyes for Miao Yin - I suspect - and the fabulously pink-and-white ceremonial make-up for both her and Kim Cattrall's Gracie, as well as Lo Pan, comes across well. There is no evidence of bleeding, or smearing, either. And, in the two troublesome scenes of grainy, obscured grey and green - when Jack first arrives in Chinatown, and for when he and Wang are forced to swim through a sunken chamber of imprisoned corpses - I saw no sign of banding or noise. Blood, on the rare occasion when we see it, is suitably thick and dark red.
A remarkable facet of this transfer is just how well the visual effects seem integrated into the film
Although the film looks sharp and detailed, if you compare it to something much more recent with a top transfer, it is going to come up way short. But this does represent a massive leap over all other home video versions that you will have seen, barring the US edition. Each scene offers up a lot more detail and the frame is now filled with more eye-catching finery in the wardrobe department, more finite texture in the sets and more facial and follicle information in the close-ups. Those icky little strands of Egg-Shen’s threadbare ‘tache and beard poke through with astonishing clarity. The ripped-up and decayed flesh on the waterlogged corpses is also the recipient of greater resolution. Depth is natural and much better than ever before. Jack back-pedalling before a Lord of Death twirling nasty weaponry under his nose at the airport, the Pork Chop Express attempting to ease down those narrow streets, a glance down a precariously deep well-shaft, and the battle on the gangway between Wang, his maître d', Eddie Lee (Donald Li) and a couple of Lo Pan's female guards all have a pleasing degree of added dimensionality. Yet, unlike transfers of The Thing or Halloween, I did not come from this feeling overly wowed by its depth and visual immersion.
A remarkable facet of this transfer is just how well the visual effects seem integrated into the film. Where once there would be sparkling matte lines and mismatched colour sequencing, Big Trouble's magical light show now looks incredibly smooth and balanced and, most rewarding of all, part and parcel of the film around it. The explosion of green fire above the whorehouse, the crackling lightning that one of the Storms hitches rides on and unleashes upon foes, Lo-Pan's floating entity travelling through walls and, best of all, the daggers of shocking laser-light than he emits from his eyes and mouth, all look terrific and so much better than you may have feared such now-vintage fx would have done. This last example of pulsing energy burning a convincing blue-white. Only the demonic Seeing-Eye pus-ball looks sort of obvious in the scheme of things, but this is still perfectly acceptable and still miles better than it looked in any version prior to its ensnaring on Blu-ray.
After seeing a couple of the films that Carpenter made with DOP Gary Kibbe, it is great to return to the master cameraman’s work. Dean Cundey was the true artist with anamorphic lenses. The softness and slight blurriness inherent to the photographic technique is not as apparent as it is with Kibbe’s imagery, although there are still elements in the frame that occasionally take on that curiously comforting distortion.
Digitally, the transfer is largely free from edge enhancement, noise or artefacts. I thought I could some very slight aliasing during Jack's rain-washed arrival at the market-place, but this is tiny and probably won't be noticed by anyone who isn't scrutinising the image. The black levels are strong - possibly too strong in a couple of scenes, but not to any worrying degree - and the contrast is well maintained throughout. The shadows are deep and stretching, but where the older versions could veritably swallow up detail in their shadows - the Seeing-Eye spy was a usual victim of this - I didn't feel that I was missing anything and that the image, overall, was brighter and more comfortably revealing.
Big Trouble In Little China gets a very strong 8 out 10.
“Shut up, Mr. Burton!”
Arrow appear to replicate the DTS HD MA 5.1 mix that graced Kurt's mystical odyssey for the Fox disc, and this certainly improves on any audio track that I've heard on the film beforehand. Cinematically, the movie had a 70mm Roadshow presentation. I can’t, however, say how well this mix compares to that. For the record, Arrow also provide a Dolby Surround track.
Now, straight-away, this new lossless mix sounds much more vigorous and boisterous than before. The front soundstage is bursting with activity, separation is clean and wide and the detail is greatly enhanced. But, fairly soon, you are going to realise that the overwhelming majority of the audio experience is going to be coming at you from the front. But this is no upset at all, folks. Carpenter's movie never lets up, never comes up for air, and this translates well to a sound-design that is full of voices, activity, action, music and some classic synth-created “stingers” that assail you all the way through.
There are wraparound sonics on offer, but I was never particularly convinced by any of them - voices, impacts and some additional rear support for the score all make their presence felt, though little of it feels really natural or fully dynamic. Then again, the film was not renowned for its surround qualities in the first place, even the 4-channel Dolby Digital mix that graced the Special Edition wasn't overly blessed with surround detail. But there are still some nice touches throughout that see to it that the film comes alive with atmosphere, even if these are mostly hurled out at you from the front. The rainstorms don't allow their downpours to travel too far across the lounge, and the crackling lightning from, ahem, the powerful Storm called Lightning, may be energetically fizzing and super-charged, but its synapse-flashes won't strike very far behind you.
Now, straight-away, this new lossless mix sounds much more vigorous and boisterous than before
Gunshots have been augmented with some extra bass to provide them - particularly during the alley fight - with more weighty oomph, some machine-gunfire sounding both better and odder than previously, with some single-shots flurries weirdly stuttering. Impacts such as shattering wood, fist and foot salvos, breaking glass and explosions also sound heftier and more percussive. Swords, however, clang with possibly less aggression than I expected, sounding maybe a touch more subdued in comparison. Personally speaking, I did not find any of this posing much of a problem, and I was just thankful to have a more exciting soundtrack to enjoy over the blander incarnations from earlier releases. The score from Carpenter and Howarth is well catered-for by the new track. Those pounding synths tumble towards you, the oriental twangs issuing cleanly and briskly from a nicely widened environment. Big Trouble was always renowned for its musical and FX “stingers” - those wacky, heart-lurching jolts designed to send your popcorn right through the roof - and this track certainly brings them to the fore with vigour and power. Amidst all this cacophony, dialogue is never left behind, swallowed-up or submerged. Even during the most hectic chase sequence, it feels properly prioritised and with fine separation across the speakers.
In all, this is a very fair presentation of what is quite a crowded soundtrack. The DTS-HD MA transfer does well to keep up and offer us such detail and strength which, really, is all you could ask for.
A strong 7 out of 10.
Arrow retain the goodies from the Fox region A Blu and the Special Edition DVD that came out a while back, which is exactly what the fans want. Here is another of Big John's celebrated commentary tracks with his macho alter-ego of Kurt Russell. Once you get passed Kurt's speaker-rattling guffaws - which commence right from the get-go - there is a wealth of trivia, production background and all-round amicable banter from the pair. Obviously very dear friends, the pair only barely manage to resist the temptation to just go off on tangents and totally forget about us with regular little prompts when one or the other will ask their buddy how they did something, why they did it like that, or what their views on so-and-so are. Naturally, they both already know all the answers and this is just for our sake, but the track is continuously amusing and anecdote-laden. They both have a great time reminiscing and, consequently, so do we listening to them. This is a far, far cry from the lamentable offering we get with In The Mouth of Madness, that’s for sure.
The vintage featurette is promotional pap, of course - but, hey, even this is 7-minutes of fun. We meet all the main players - Carpenter, Russell, Cattrell, Dunn and Hong - who give amusing little introductions to their characters and the sheer enjoyment that they are having on-set and how this should translate to the audience, as well.
The Deleted Scenes and the Extended Ending are great to see, although they were possibly removed and altered for all the right reasons. The extended finale feels too contrived and cosy - Jack gets his playful revenge on the street-gang who got the whole adventure started - and the rest of the material can be viewed either as rough-cut footage or from a Betamax workprint. The Lava Pit sequence from the finale is seen in storyboard form.
Arrow score points for bestowing us with a slew of new interviews
Arrow score points for bestowing us with a slew of new interviews, which can be viewed either as a continuous feature, or individually. Big John is here, as is the mighty Kurt Russell, sporting a profuse amount of facial foliage. There is Dean Cundey, and producer Larry Franco, and there is even the acclaimed stuntman and martial artist Jeff Imada, who has worked with Carpenter many times. A returning chat with visual effects man, Richard Edlund comes next. This could previously be viewed either with a box-out in the corner of the screen showing us imagery that he and his team created for the film or, by toggling, with the imagery filling the screen and Edlund's carried over the top. Arrow’s version simplifies the whole thing to focussing on Edlund with an FX box in the corner. Somewhat faltering, Edlund's delivery isn't great, but the feature is still a welcome one that shows us the extent of the lever, buttons, switches and operators that brought the Seeing-Eye and the sewer-monster to life.
Then, in a real boon for John Carpenter-music lovers, we get two special features devoted to the cult themes he created for the film. The first is the score playing on an isolated track in full DTS, no less. Now, the great thing about this is that Big Trouble has virtually wall-to-wall music, meaning that there aren't too many dead spots. But, having said that, the best way to listen to this memorable score is from the official CD release, which contains the complete score, as well as various bonus material.
The second item is something that sounds like it will turn the stomach and have you reaching for the stop button in a flash, but ends up being absolutely brilliant, is the specially crafted music video for the title song of Big Trouble In Little China, performed, of course, by Carpenter, Castle and Wallace in their mock-rock, guitar and keyboard frat-pack of The Coupe De Villes. Full of manic early MTV colours, zooms and visuals, this has the trio “shukking 'n' jivin'” in the film's editing suite, dressed like Arabian neon-gurus and giving it loads. Enormously good fun and immensely addictive.
The UK disc is rounded off with Big Trouble's theatrical trailers and TV spots, as well as a 17-minute behind the scenes gallery.
Whilst a meaty retrospective making-of would obviously have been the icing on the oriental cake, this is still a fine selection of goodies.
As Good as it Gets
“We really shook the pillars of Heaven, didn’t we?”
Possibly the most fun that John Carpenter has ever bundled into a movie, Big Trouble in Little China is a cult masterpiece of comedic action-fantasy in the best tradition of the rip-roaring 40’s cliff-hangers. The passage of time has not dulled its wit, nor its bravura, anything-goes attitude.
Mystical gobbledygook runs headlong into the brazen idiocy of Western machismo as King Kurt Russell mullets his way through a dizzying caper of oriental demons, chop-socky street gangs and lonely, lovelorn sorcerers in order to rescue green-eyed damsels in distress and defy death every step of the way. He’s massively in over his thick head, with only his own unique brand of clumsy courage and an idiotically cocksure resilience to help see him through. Russell is on excellent form, and his director and close friend really cuts loose with an adventure yarn that was way ahead of its time, yet still gloriously pulpish and retro. Filled with outlandish martial arts and colourful special FX, the film is continually inventive, often hysterical and superbly entertaining through and through.
A terrific release of a true one-off!
Arrow’s release retains the good stuff from Fox’s US edition and adds a little more to the pot. Fresh interviews now bolster the amusing and informative commentary and the rash of cool deleted scenes. They reliably keep the same fine transfer too.
Carpenter proved that he could deliver broad comedy and spectacular action with this, and yet keep all those stylistic flourishes that his fans adored.
A terrific release of a true one-off!
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £19.99
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