||Big Trouble in Little China
1986 - PG-13 - 99 Mins.
|Director: John Carpenter|
|Producer: Larry J. Franco|
|Written By: Garry Goldman, W. D. Richter|
|Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Victor Wong, James Hong, Dennis Dun |
|Review by: Harrison Cheung
This enduring cult movie from 1986 recently merited the deluxe DVD treatment with lots of extras. ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ was arguably John Carpenter’s last good movie. Though he gave us such pivotal horror flicks like ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Thing,’ and he single-handedly gave Kurt Russell a path out of child stardom, Carpenter’s projects have always suffered from poor soundtracks (his own compositions) and often sloppy finales.
Russell and crew are in Big Trouble
It’s a real treat to watch ‘Big Trouble,’ especially in light of the success of ‘The Matrix’ movies, which did what ‘Big Trouble’ could not as a box office bomb – popularize the Hong Kong style of fighting choreography. If ‘The Matrix’ and Tarantino can be credited for focusing interest in Hong Kong and Taiwan cinema, to his credit Carpenter was there first with ‘Big Trouble.’
Starring Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, James Hong, Victor Wong, and Dennis Dun, ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ is the story of a trucker, Jack Burton (Russell), who must explore the deepest, darkest parts of San Francisco Chinatown (aka Little China) to recover his stolen truck from a Chinese tong (mafia). He soon runs into the reincarnation of the first Emperor of China, Lo Pan (Hong) who has kidnapped a rarity – a Chinese girl with green eyes – in his quest for the elixir of immortality.
The story is a lot of fun – a cross of old Hollywood action serials, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and a chop suey (leftovers) of Chinese mythology. No surprise here – the script was written by W.D. Richter who wrote and/or produced a number of genre-crossing cult favorites like ‘Late for Dinner’ and ‘Buckaroo Bonzai.’
If Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken character from Carpenter’s ‘Escape from New York’ movies was a riff off a Clint Eastwood kind of cool, then Jack Burton is a comic turn of that kind of strut. In ‘Big Trouble,’ Russell is an awful lot like Brendan Fraser in ‘The Mummy.’ There are a number of funny scenes where the swaggering Burton is up-ended by self-injury or some irreverent ego deflating from the always-feisty Cattrall.
Stealing the show is the late, great Victor Wong as Egg Shen, a cantankerous ‘favorite uncle’ character who drives the local Chinatown tour bus, spouts his fortune cookie snippets of wisdom, but is actually a Chinese wizard. Wong, who’s face is immediately recognizable in scores of movies – 'The Joy Luck Club', 'Prince of Darkness', 'Tremors', 'Eat a Bowl of Tea' – brings great texture and counterpoint to Russell’s sometimes oily trucker. Thanks to his own wizen image, he reminds Burton (and the audience) that the mysteries of China and Chinatown are much older and darker than a young American could possibly fathom.
And opposite the evil Lo Pan, Wong faces off against the reptilian James Hong. Hong is also pretty funny as he snipes at Burton and Egg Shen with a regal peevishness (“Peasant magic!” he haughtily exclaims.) He's like a Chinese version of The Simpson's Montgomery Burns.
Though enjoyable, the movie has not aged well. The special effects were low-rent, even for the 1980s. I groan whenever I see the escalator disguised as Lo Pan’s levitation device. The martial arts choreography lacks the visual panache of the standards now set by ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.’ It’s pretty obvious that Carpenter is/was a fan of Hong Kong cinema – but he’s clearly not as talented as Tarantino in converting that style to Western tastes. There’s an excessive use of neon lights in Lo Pan’s otherwise tasteful palace. And the finale is off-putting, especially when the consistently Chinese story suddenly gets Thai gods thrown in for visual spice. We also get monster-overload with an ‘Eyeball’ creature that looks like a leftover from ‘Ghostbusters’ and a Yeti thrown in for good measure. What the…?
John Carpenter fancies himself a composer ever since Halloween’s memorable signature tune, but his simplistic synthesizer score does little to embellish ‘Big Trouble.’ Given how important music is to a film’s mood and feeling, it would be no exaggeration to say that he’s ruined many of his own films with an inferior score. There’s a music video included on the DVD extras of Carpenter singing the theme song for ‘Big Trouble’ and it’s totally embarrassing and painful.
Nevertheless, ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ is a fun movie to watch. It’s warped and witty, culturally self-aware of stereotypes, and an obvious cult movie for martial arts fans looking for the first Western look at Chinese mythology and martial arts.