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Big Trouble in Little China Review

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Big trouble, big budget, big fun

by Chris McEneany Aug 23, 2009

  • Movies review


    Big Trouble in Little China Review
    "Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it's all in the reflexes."

    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 - things like Brazil and Blade Runner spring immediately to mind - 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 20th Century Fox's release of Carpenter's unrivalled, thrill-and-laugh-a-minute caper on Blu-ray, Big Trouble's longevity and popularity looks set to win over the hearts of hi-def lovers everywhere.

    Made during the time when Carpenter was heavily interested in quantum physics, a period that saw him practice the concept of trans-dimensional cross-overs with profoundly symbolic and religious overtones with the, sadly, quite disappointing Prince Of Darkness (which even retained a couple of cast members from this), Big Trouble would represent a new way of thinking for the director. Now, his supernatural bent wouldn't be so black and white as witnessed in Halloween and The Fog, which were both driven, singular and simplistic, and his threat not so purely malevolent, as we discovered in The Thing. Big Trouble isn't in the least bit scientific, you understand. But it does seek to open doors of relativity and this is something that Carpenter would never quite be able to bring into his movies with any real conviction. Interviews that he gave at the time, particularly in the run-up to the release of Prince Of Darkness, which he commenced production on immediately after this, were loaded with ideas and theories about the nature of existence and the things that may lurk beyond it, but as excitingly Lovecraftian as this may sound, their best outlet would be the ambitious, but sub-par In The Mouth Of Madness that came along in 1994. You have to give him credit, though, for refusing to become pigeon-holed with the serious stalk 'n' slash, hard SF and urban thrillers that made his name during his amazing early run of non-stop commercial hits.

    “Well, ya see, I'm not saying that I've been everywhere and I've done everything, but I do know it's a pretty amazing planet we live on here, and a man would have to be some kind of fool to think we're alone in this universe.”

    For the excellently titled Big Trouble In Little China, Carpenter drew on his love for Hong Kong Cinema - not the typical Bruce Lee chop-sockies that most American audiences were familiar with, but the more obscure, offbeat and wacky martial arts/sorcery flicks that could be found on the Grindhouse and drive-in circuits. He took his inspiration from things like Swords Of Fame and Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain. With a screenplay written by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, the director got Tinseltown's then-bon-vivente, W. D. Richter to adapt it and, working with a regular crew, including ace cinematographer Dean Cundey (back in place after missing Starman) and visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund, grabbed a-hold of his brawny on-screen alter-ego, Kurt Russell, and, together, they all went oriental. And imaginatively mental, to boot.

    “This is gonna take cracker-jack timing, Wang!”

    Truck-driving meat-head, Jack Burton (an on-fire Kurt Russell), hits San Francisco's Chinatown and spends a rainy night gambling and drinking with his buddies on the markets. But when he wins big time over his old friend, restaurant-owner Wang (Dennis Dunn), calling in his debt somehow pitches him into the middle of a gang-war, which then leads to a mysterious encounter with some supernaturally endowed Triad elementals - the Storms - and, as if that wasn't enough, a reluctant mission that will take him deep into the subterranean underworld of Little China to rescue Wang's abducted fiancée Miao Yin (played by the gorgeous Penthouse model, Suzee Pai) and then a diabolical head-to-head with a mystical 2000-year-old sorcerer called Lo-Pan (and played by James Hong) who needs hostage green-eyed girls to help him rule the world from beyond the grave. Hmmm ... none of this was on his delivery sheet. Falling in with Dunn and Victor Wong's Egg-Shen, a tour-bus operator-cum-crusading wizard, a gaggle of monk-like Chang Sing warriors and Kim Cattrall's feisty lawyer, Gracie Law, he infiltrates Lo-Pan's stronghold and ... well ... and then ... oh, what does it matter? As ol' Jack Burton would say ... “ahhh, what the hell!”

    Amazingly for such a pulp-serial throwback as this, there is actually a lot of plot or, at least, a lot of ideas floating about. Lo-Pan's surprisingly tragic quest for immortality and power - his spirit is trapped within the prison of a frail old man's body, yet his libido and his thirst for power allow him to utilise a frightening, regal phantom to work his magic - hints at a time of Chaos and an age-old struggle for supremacy over the world. A raging feud between him and Egg-Shen seems to have been going on for centuries. Crime and extortion topside hide a realm of magic - “the darkest magic” - that holds court over Little China, the traditions of the old country meaning very little to Jack, but given a courteous credence by Carpenter, who appears entranced by the possibilities he can tap into with such myths and legends. Once off the main streets of Frisco, we are in a land where literally anything can happen ... and frequently does.

    Shaggy-haired Beast-Men lurk in the caves beneath the relocated province. Sunken torture chambers house mangled corpses. Giant bug-like critters have a tendency to pop out of the shadows and gobble up the unwary. And just who's half-inched Jack's beloved rig, the Pork Chop Express?

    “It's all right. Everybody relax ... I'm here.”
    And that's meant to be a good thing, is it, Jack?

    A slave to his own incompetence, Jack is the most cack-handed hero ever to go the distance. Full of spit and misplaced bravado, he enters into the fray with street gangs, warring warriors, supernatural entities and unearthly creatures with true do-or-die arrogance. That he fumbles every damn encounter he gets into, whether through bad judgement, bad timing, or just plain bad luck, is to his credit not his shame. “Are you ready, Jack?” Wang asks him at one point. “Are you kidding? I was born ready,” comes the incredibly reassuring, yet completely shallow reply, totally summing up this ever-gallant fool rushing in where angels, and the more sensible, fear to tread. Narrow escapes, laughing in the face of danger, assuming command of situations that he hasn't a hope of defeating on his own - Jack runs the gamut of what is expected of any all-American jock. But with his testosterone level considerably higher than that of his IQ, it is a miracle that his cohorts in the grand battle hold him in such high esteem. The enigmatic prologue, in which Egg-shen seeks to exonerate Jack's involvement in the events that he is about to regale his lawyer with, paints the guy out to be some kind of legendary figure - which is one of the film's classic jokes. If it is only the clumsy bumbling of one outsider that can save the world, then it is, indeed, Chaos that will have the last laugh. Ironically, this prologue was an additional scene that twitchy Fox execs demanded be put into the film to make Russell's character, at least, seem like more than a mere klutz, little realising that it would actually aid Carpenter's original intentions for Jack Burton a whole lot more.

    “Henry Swanson's my name, and excitement's my game.” Cue Kurt Russell looking almost as clownish in his brothel-creeping disguise as he did dressed as a female stripper in Tango & Cash.

    Another great thing about the story is how Jack becomes embroiled in it all in the first place. So many adventure yarns have the hero unwittingly swept up in the narrative, but there is also usually a much greater goal that means they can't simply back out once their crusade has begun - rescuing a daughter (John Matrix in Commando), on the run from the cops (John Rambo in First Blood), assuming Messianic duties (Neo in The Matrix) or idealistically fighting the good fight against tyranny (Luke Skywalker in Star Wars) - but Jack Burton, who simply wants his truck back (oh, and Wang's money!), has several opportunities to just walk away from the whole thing. Yet he doesn't. He stays and puts himself back into harm's way when escape would be a far easier option. Is it true heroism? Nope. Not a bit of it. Jack loves his own legend - something that he created for himself, of course, and embellishes regularly over the CB airwaves - and this little escapade is exactly the type of deal that would make for an another astonishing anecdote on the roadmap of his life. Which, of course, makes him unique in the Carpenter/Russell roll-call of heroes. Snake Plissken is in things for himself. That he “may” save lives along the way, is purely circumstantial. The Thing's sombrero-wearing helicopter pilot, Macready, is also a loner, but he will help his brother if he can. Both of Russell's previous Carpenter-created icons are the two separate moods of the same character. But Jack Burton is a different fortune cookie altogether. Whereas we all wanted to see more of Snake, his second adventure actually lessened his persona quite considerably. Macready can't and shouldn't be expanded upon. Jack Burton, however, and the Pork Chop Express ... well, as he says at the end regarding whether or not we will ever see him again, “you never can tell.”

    It's a fitting epitaph, but of all the Russell/Carpenter heroes, Jack is the one who actually could be revisited - in any guise, any situation, any location and remain totally true to character. This oriental hokum is basically just in a day's work for him and the devil-may-care trucker could have any number of other escapades and scrapes in any genre you care to mention.

    “Okay ... we may be trapped!”

    Russell's style is so winning here. It is tremendous to see his cocksure attitude and Wayne-like swagger come apart at the seams whenever the chips are down. Look at how he accidentally slings his boot-knife away as he desperately tries to rise to a fight he knows he can't run from. Or how he is perpetually outwitted and out-manoeuvred by those he confronts, even when sporting a smudge of lipstick planted on his smacker after a fresh snog with Gracie. But the best moment comes courtesy of Egg-Shen's magical potion of courage. After quaffing the elixir, Jack has to admit to a packed elevator of veritable Bruce Lees that he feels “... pretty good. Not scared at all. Kind of ... feel kind of invincible,” before accidentally knocking himself out before the final charge. Look at the grins on his fellow warriors in the lift, too. Priceless. You also have to admire the way that John Carpenter coaxed out a Clint Eastwood impersonation from Russell for Snake Plissken and, then, for the brazen buffoon of Jack Burton, summoned up a terrific John Wayne routine from start to finish. Replete with sarcastic drawl, a liberal dose of Duke-ish quotations-under-fire and a tough guy swagger, Russell makes his prime-beef jerk-off hero both the last person able to get you out of a fix and, irresistibly, the only person you'd actually want by your side. Constantly scuppered by his own ineptitude, Burton is the Stooge-like antidote to all those regular, brawn-encased urban warriors that King Kurt was so well known for playing. And the fact that Russell is so damn good at the fun-loving, self-deprecating antics of such an adventurous idiot means that his truck-driving, beer-swilling street philosopher becomes much, much more than the sum of his screen-written parts.

    “What does that mean - China is here? I don't even know what the hell that means!”

    Carpenter even finds the opportunity to allow some Hawksian influence shine through with his mouthy heroines of Kim Cattrall and Kate (daughter of Richard) Burton. Foreshadowing the knowing wink he expressed with the overlong fight sequence in They Live, he gets Burton's big-break-seeking journalist, Margo, to spout out a huge amount of exposition in a fraction of the time it takes the orientals to bamboozle Jack (and us) with their mystical mumbo-jumbo. Wisecracking from start to finish, Jack overlaps practically everyone with his own oh-so-quotable armada of quips, barbs and retorts. Although painstakingly written, Russell makes this almost ceaseless gobbing-off seem like it is improvised, which really adds to the fresh, spontaneous whipcrack-away pace of the movie. Even when there is no action taking place on-screen, his performance adds a dynamic that shunts away at the film like there is no tomorrow.

    “In 2000 years you can't find one broad to fit the bill? Come on, Dave, you must be doing something seriously wrong.” So goes Jack's understanding of his captor's Dracula-inspired tale of supernatural woe!

    Veteran performer James Hong, eyeball-fabricator in Blade Runner and instantly recognisable character-actor in about a gazillion other TV, movie and animated voice-over parts, is brilliantly off-the-wall here as both reclusive, crippled tycoon David Lo-Pan and his seven-foot tall demonic alter-ego, his avatar, as it were. Rattling across his lavish lair in his wheelchair to interrogate his prisoners - you've got to love the way that Carpenter has both Russell and Dunn lashed into wheelchairs, themselves, just to even things up a bit - he is a brittle, eccentric and lecherous oddity, uncomfortably stroking Wang's hand in order to gain information about his intended bride, yet clearly associating more with the utterly perplexed Jack, in whom the wizened old black magician possibly sees a queer sort of kindred spirit. “You strike me as someone who would understand the difficulties between men and women ... how seldom it works out,” he simpers towards the bemused knuckle-brain. An unexpectedly contemporary snarl at the sight of good guy reinforcements on a CCTV screen only endears the decrepit little monster all the more. And then, in his more noble guise of the towering phantom prince, bedecked in royal finery and painted with an impressionistic demoniacal make-up, he giggles like a loon when the promise of true flesh and blood on his withered bones seems to be coming true. It is a really strange character and a fittingly bizarre performance from Hong. How about that little hissing cackle he delivers when his wedding ceremony is interrupted by the good guys, and the exasperated expression on his face when Jack's thrown knife clangs harmlessly off a Buddhist effigy behind him? This is pure pantomime ... and it works marvellously.

    “What the hell is this, Wang?”
    “Chinese stand-off, Jack ... don't make a sound ...

    80's action movie favourite Al Leong - the guy who electrocutes Martin Riggs in the first Lethal Weapon, Hans Gruber's chocolate-loving henchman in Die Hard, and reliable human tsunami of fist and foot bedlam in things like Action Jackson and Rapid Fire - appears here as a diminutive, but explosively agile skirmisher in the ranks of Lo Pan, his Fu Manchu 'tache and flyaway, wispy hair one of those visual hallmarks of the decade's more kinetically violent set-pieces. Apparently Leong also had an uncredited role in the prison fight of Tango & Cash (BD reviewed separately), the Asian actor presumably wanting another pop at battering Kurt Russell. Elsewhere, the three Storms harken back to the Masters Of Death in the fantastic Lone-wolf And Cub series of blood-spillers, with their bamboo-armour and wicker-basket hats, and with their sadistic array of weaponry and their ability to carve-up whole armies without getting so much as a scratch. Head-boy, Thunder (played by Carter Wong, once martial arts instructor to the HK police and star of the brilliantly titled A Fist Too Fast from 1978) is supremely muscled and intimidating, his broken English and fake smile only adding to his sinister aura. Yet if Russell's Burton is the obvious “blow-hard” of the piece, Wong's brutish ogre is the one who takes “blowing hard” to its most eye-popping and explosive conclusion when his own latex-fuelled fury gets he better of him.

    “Tall guy, weird clothes. First you see him, then you don't.”

    The film's initial flop can be ascribed to audiences just not realising what they were getting themselves into. This was the era of Rambo: First Blood Part II, after all, and they wanted their heroes packing some serious heat as well as muscle and to be able to decimate legions of enemies scene by scene. Yet, whilst Big Trouble had exactly this type of guts 'n' glory stuffed into it, the film, and its leading man, weren't taking themselves seriously - at all. Plus, it had characters flying around on wires and defying the laws of physics and gravity with delirious aplomb - and this was well over ten years before the Wachowski Brothers made such a thing cool for Western audiences with The Matrix. Kurt Russell was playing a fool. Rubbery monsters kept putting in appearances. Even the theme of a despicable Eastern sex trade taking place in the homeland may have troubled some conservative moviegoers expecting a shallow and inoffensive mainstream fantasy yarn, and, not to be underestimated, Michael Cimino's excellent crime drama, Year Of The Dragon, starring Mickey Rourke, had enflamed Asian-American sensibilities with its depiction of them, meaning that many were weary of another oriental-flavoured story fanning the fire. But, either way, the film's hectic, helter-skelter collision of Western machismo and Eastern promise proved too exotic a brew for many people and the film unfairly foundered on the critical rocks of bemusement and indifference.

    The more I see the film, however, the more I love it. Sure, some of the monsters look pathetically fake - to be honest, they looked naff back in '86, as well - but they have a personality that is all so beautifully enmeshed in the over-the-top zaniness of the production that it just doesn't matter. Lo Pan's pus-filled bag of floating seeing-eyes is a great idea, fabulously designed and with a definite zest of its own, but it can't help coming across like a Carpenter riff on the never-convincing Slimer from 84's Ghostbusters. But, if I had one real complaint, it would be that the combat seen in the alley fight at the start of it all is much, much better than any of the skirmishes that we see taking place later on - actually quite brutal and brilliantly choreographed by Jim Lau and the famed Dan Inosanto amongst an absolute bevy of renowned stuntment and martial artists - meaning that the final battle we see can seem a tad disappointing and unsatisfying by comparison. But this is only a really minor bugbear in a film that simply doesn't let up.

    A certain James Cameron also came along with a little film of his own at the same time as Big Trouble - something called Aliens, that you may recall - that managed to sweep most other action-fantasies aside that year. Naturally, Fox ballyhooed his movie and Big Trouble's highly stylised comedy left the studio execs unsure of how to market it. With Aliens being the sure-fire bet, Carpenter's movie was saddled with a lousy ad-campaign that failed to ignite much more than a passing interest. “Jack who?” “Big Trouble where?” being the typical response from anyone other than a Carpenter fan.

    “A brave man likes the feel of nature on his face, Jack.”
    “Yeah, and a wise man has enough sense to get in out of the rain!”

    Of course, as regular followers of these reviews will know and expect, I cannot neglect a mention of the film's score. After hiring Jack Nitzsche to compose for Starman, it was a welcome return for John Carpenter and regular scoring associate, Alan Howarth, to the mixing desk and the banks of synthesisers, emulators and the result, aided by the MIDI system, was one of Big John's best-ever scores. With a track record that includes Halloween, Escape From New York, The Fog and, most blistering of all, Assault On Precinct 13, this is certainly saying something. But, with a luxurious amount of time allowed for the composing, mixing and all-round experimentation and fine-tuning, the score ended-up being a truly remarkable blend of rhythmic action, humorous character build and bewitchingly exotic atmospherics. With no understanding of Chinese music - Carpenter can barely even read Western music, for that matter - the pair simply created effects and samples that, well, sounded Chinese to them. But their intensive, flamboyant and almost continuous beats and ambient textures created a musical signature for the film that totally embraced its schizophrenic moods of ghostly obsession and all-out derring-do. The infectiously catchy title song is actually performed by Carpenter's own high school band, The Coups De Villes - which is made up of Carpenter, himself, on lead guitar and lending his Jim Morrison-aping, lung-dredging vocals to old pals, Nick Castle (who played the Shape in Halloween and went on to direct The Last Starfighter) on guitar and bringing some high notes to the singing, and Tommy Wallace (director of Halloween III: Season Of The Witch) on keyboards. The resulting vanity-project is awesomely daft but a pure blast. A full review of the complete score will follow at some point in the future.

    “Which Lo Pan? Little old basket case on wheels or the ten foot tall roadblock?”

    With Russell never more charismatic, Hong at his eclectic best, and a dazzling array of martial arts, sorcery, monsters and mayhem, Carpenter was, indeed, ahead of the curve with this genre bunk-up. After the romantic SF fable of Starman, fans and critics simply didn't know what to expect from him next. It seems, also, that Carpenter was equally as unsure in which direction to turn, himself, but was certainly content to be along for the ride. As regular readers will know, I regard Big Trouble as being the last great film that he has made, the bewildering plummet into mediocrity that would take control of his ensuing movies from Prince Of Darkness onwards something that I still can't fathom, and continue to mourn. But, the essential thing is that John Carpenter has a solid series of at least eight classic genre movies behind him, and even the seven or so substandard entries that followed this offer plenty to enjoy - be it the fluid visuals, the mesmeric music or simply the fact that he actually attempts to tackle different themes, albeit whilst dressing them up in his beloved fantasy and sci-fi apparel.

    Big Trouble In Little China is an absolute hoot from start to finish. The action is great, the comedy addictive and the main character one of the most memorably goofy of the 80's. John Carpenter and co. were clearly having a ball making the film and the madcap, irreverent vibe that they provide it with makes for a wonderfully irresistible experience. Back when it debuted, non-one knew how to take it. Now, with the appropriate bucket-full of salt, we can see it for the fantasy classic that it is. The last great John Carpenter movie hits Blu-ray in style and, green eyes or not, this is one rare exotic bird that you should waste no time in whisking off to your lair. Officially, this gets an 8 out of 10 but, hey, as ol' Jack Burton always says “ahhhh, what the hell ...” So, just between you and me ... you can lash another point on top of that if you like.

    "Crackerjack" stuff, folks.