Lost in theaters, Big Trouble in Little China has been a favorite ever since it hit home video. Full of elements unfamiliar to 1986 audiences, its wall-to-wall kung fu comedy and martial arts madness blend well with John Carpenter's formalistic, deadpan, Howard Hawks literalism. The characters are funny, the action swift, and the production design dazzling. Here's a movie my kids go nuts over, that I can go nuts over too.
Swaggering truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) helps his pal Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) pick up his sweetheart Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) at the airport and runs smack into the middle of a plot by ancient mystic ghost David Lo Pan (James Hong) to retake human form and conquer the earth, with the help of Chinese black arts and three elemental phantoms: Thunder (Carter Wong), Rain (Peter Kwong), and Lightning (James Pax). Backed up by crusading lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), naive reporter Margo (Kate Burton), and the loyal Eddie Lee (Donald Li), Jack and Wang follow benign sorceror Egg Shen (Victor Wong) into David Lo Pan's underground lair, deep beneath San Francisco's Chinatown.
After being so gruesome in The Thing, and doing so well with romance in Starman, John Carpenter jumped headfirst into off the wall, genre-bending action comedy with this tightly constructed joy ride of a movie. As he himself was wont to describe, it's a heroic kung-fu martial arts adventure with a jokey attitude that never takes itself seriously. We take it seriously because its mythical elements are so beautifully put together, thanks to screenwriter Rick Richter, fresh from directing Buckaroo Banzai. The mystical Chinese blarney is put forward with gusto and conviction; every special effect and production detail adds to the impact of the story, and Carpenter has his actors totally pumped-up to sell this serial-adventure silliness like it's the best thing ever put before a camera.
And it works. Carpenter captures the formalism and fetishism of real Hong Kong martial arts movies without sending them up or putting them down. Kurt Russell has got to be the original good egg, making his character a total screw-up goofus, the Anti-Rambo, for our enjoyment. Rather than try to make an anglo the action centerpiece of what is really an Asian specialty, as in dreck like the American Ninja series, the talented Kurt is comedy relief for a Circus of 1001 Delights.
The mostly Asian cast is excellent, with Dennis Dun's Wang Chi character the real hero of the tale. He's valiant, easy-going and gets the girl. Dennis is not really a martial arts expert, but goes up against top talent like Carter Wong and Peter Kwong quite convincingly. Victor Wong's wonderful Egg Shen is no walking fortune cookie like the teacher in the Karate Kid movies, but instead a full participant in the fun. Kim Cattrall is one of the generation of terrific 80s actresses who each seeming only got 3 or four good roles, when they should have been major stars - she's every bit as good at screwball romantic comedy as the greats of the past like Barbara Stanwyck or Jean Arthur. And James Hong's evil villain is a many-faced bad guy with an understandable motive and a delight in his methods, who never becomes a racial hate figure ... he's having fun right along with everyone else. I have no excuse for not picking up on this movie in 1986, but it sure is a fun ride now.
Trouble breaks the weakening hold of the Indiana Jones movies by not taking itself so darn seriously, or constructing itself around setpieces so gargantuan that the characters become puppets. We stay in close with the bickering, bragging Jack Burton all the way through. It's completely old-fashioned, while allowing ridiculous unexplained things to fly in out of left field, such as a giant monster that makes its entrance and exit in about 3 seconds flat, and is never seen again. Genre conventions are tilted nicely. A kung-fu fighter enters wearing six guns; the hero smooches with his best girl, and wears a ridiculous smear of red lipstick across his face for a full half of a scene. Margo likens the adventure to Alice in Wonderland, and the exotic delights of all we see and hear, bear her out. Special mention needs to be made of production designer John Lloyd and martial arts choreographer James Lew for their unique contributions.
John Carpenter remains the current master of the wide screen, and a filmmaker who always crafts a powerful first two acts, even if he sometimes has a hard time resolving his movies well. Trouble sputters a tiny bit at the end, but not long enough to wear out its welcome. Along the way we see bits lifted from Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings and The Thing from Another World, yet Carpenter doesn't let this one get away from him. With a great script and excellent help in all departments, this is one of his most enjoyable movies.
Fox Home Video's DVD of Big Trouble in Little China is a big batch of goodies in a little package. A second disc has everything the BTILC fan wants, a pile of deleted scenes, trailers, the whole televison campaign, and the original featurette. There's a pretty obnoxious music video as well. Back on disc one, the impeccably transferred 16:9 feature comes with both Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks, and a commentary track from Carpenter and Russell that is another one of their chummy gabfests, as much fun as the one on the old Escape from New York laserdisc. Carpenter has nothing to hide and Russell is charming and no-nonsense, and it's plain obvious they're having a grand time drinking beer and laughing their heads off at the fun they had 16 years ago making this thing. Carpenter offers that before Rick Richter overhauled the script, it was a western called El Diablo. At one point they veer so far afield that they apologize for not talking more about the movie, but we don't care, as we get to sit in the same room with them for 90 minutes. They should be proud; this is one quality movie that's a great party picture at the same time.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,