The added resolution of Blu-ray makes a big difference to John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, one of his best-looking pictures. Not a big performer in theaters, the rowdy Kurt Russell action comedy has been a favorite ever since it hit home video. Introducing new genre elements to 1986 audiences, its wall-to-wall kung fu eye candy and martial arts madness blend well with John Carpenter's 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.
In San Francisco's Chinatown, 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, when they run smack into the middle of an ancient mystic plot. Ghost David Lo Pan (James Hong) wants 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 by crusading lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), naive reporter Margo (Kate Burton), and the loyal Eddie Lee (Donald Li), Jack and Wang follow benign sorcerer Egg Shen (Victor Wong) into David Lo Pan's underground lair, deep beneath the city streets.
After upping the gore content of 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 is wont to describe, it's a heroic kung-fu martial arts adventure that never takes itself seriously. We take the film seriously because its mythical elements are so beautifully orchestrated, 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 pumps-up his actors 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 Cannon Films' 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 he 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 seemingly got only three or four good roles, when they should have been major stars -- she's every bit as good at screwball romantic comedy as 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. The tone maintained never allows the Chinese to become racial hate figures ... even the villain is having fun, right along with the rest of the cast. I have no excuse for not picking up on this movie in 1986, but it sure is a fun ride now.
Big Trouble breaks the weakening hold of the Indiana Jones movies by not taking itself so darn seriously, or constructing itself around set pieces 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 given a nice tilt. A kung-fu fighter enters wearing six-guns; after smooching with his best girl, the hero 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 is a master of the wide screen, and a filmmaker who always crafts a powerful first two acts, even if he sometimes has difficulties resolving his movies satisfactorily. Big Trouble in Little China 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 Blu-ray of Big Trouble in Little China is a big visual improvement over the older DVD, mainly because the terrific art direction and the special effects just couldn't be seen at their full beauty in the older format. Even things as small as tiny animated electric arcs look far, far better, and all those beautiful detailed costumes really pop.
The extras are an entertaining bag of goodies, all sourced from the earlier disc. A commentary track from Carpenter and Russell is another of their chummy gabfests, as much fun as the one on the old Escape from New Yorklaser disc. Carpenter has nothing to hide and Russell is charming and open. It's plainly obvious they're having a grand time drinking beer and laughing their heads off at the fun they had making this thing 23 years ago. 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. Carpenter and Russell should be proud, as this is one party picture that's also a quality movie.
Other extras include deleted scenes (with an extended ending that was thankfully dropped), trailers, the whole television campaign, and an original featurette. Richard Edlund is interviewed on the special effects. An obnoxious music video is on there as well. Besides the new HD transfer, the array of soundtrack selections includes a 5.1 DTS isolated music score track.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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