They don't make them like this anymore! A few years ago, testosterone filled actioners low on cerebral content and high on dead body counts were two a penny. Now, in the extremely sensitive and politically correct world in which we live, films such as John Carpenter's Big Trouble In Little China are quite a rarity, in the same mould as Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and The Goonies.
With a ridiculously absurd plot and mythical settings, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the film is geared towards the lower age group. However, Big Trouble In Little China, with its parodying humour and violent action, brings out the kid in every adult.
The plot tells of typically all-American Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), a trucker, who agrees to give a lift to his friend Wang (Dennis Dun) in order to pick up Wang's fiancée from the airport. Jack is only doing the favour so that Wang can get the money to pay Jack his gambling debt that has amassed between the two. Jack should have cut his losses, as he soon becomes dragged into a merciless war between the supernatural forces of good and evil set in the underworld of San Francisco's Chinatown! After a series of bizarre events, Jack must rescue his truck and Wang's green-eyed fiancée from the evil David Lo Pan (James Hong). Lo Pan is an immortal sorcerer looking to marry a green-eyed woman in order to appease his God and become flesh again. However, in order to appease another of his Gods, Lo Pan must then kill the woman. To make matters worse, Lo Pan is guarded by three mystical warriors named Thunder, Rain and Lightning who can take more than a punch. Jack and Wang however, are not to be underestimated, or at least Wang isn't, as he leads the fumbling Jack through a series of action-filled encounters en route to rescuing his fiancée and defeating Lo Pan.
Big Trouble In Little China is a roller-coaster ride through the mystical Chinatown underworld with heavy doses of wit and action. John Carpenter, master of films such as Halloween, Escape From New York, Assault On Precinct 13, The Fog and The Thing is clearly having the most fun with this effort and it shows on every frame. Kurt Russell, star of half of the films previously mentioned, perfectly demonstrates why it was rumoured that he was third choice behind Tom Selleck and Harrison Ford for Indiana Jones. Russell sends himself up as the meddling-action-hero-who-is-actually-just-a-liability very humourously, and his onscreen chemistry with Dennis Dun works within the very first few minutes of the film, and never diminishes. Dun himself is a likeable Asian-American star, and why he was never talked about in the same circles as someone like Jackie Chan or Jet Li is anyone's guess. Kim Cattrell, the sexual predator in Sex And The City, reminds us all that in the eighties she used to play little miss innocence in films such as Police Academy and Mannequin.
The directing by John Carpenter is first rate, as he deftly balances the action and humour in order that no sequence of the film ever suffers. Dialogue is never compromised for action, and vice versa.
Some of the action and aesthetic elements of the film are inevitably dated; Carpenter's own music score pays too heavily towards Giorgio Moroder, and the fashion elements of some of the bad guys are laughable in today's light. The film has also been criticised for its two dimensional portrayal of the Chinese race. However, in answer to that criticism, you could argue that the whole film is essentially a solely Chinese affair with Dennis Dun as the film's true action hero, and the bumbling Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) stumbling accidentally into the middle of it all.
In its own dated way, Big Trouble In Little China is a relic of a forgotten age - a time where films such as Rambo: First Blood - Part II and Commando were being churned out of the cinemas each week, and the public lapped them up in droves. It's funny, filled with action and violence, and has a far fetched plot that doesn't require much brain attention. Carpenter will most be remembered for Halloween, but this film still has its heart in all of the right places and has been championed as the fans' favourite. You only have to look at video games such as Mortal Kombat to see its influences.
Although presented correctly in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the video transfer isn't as good as it could have been, with some grain and a gloomy colour scale. Slight edge enhancement is apparent, although this is only minor. Many of the dull colouring facets are the fault of the film itself, but the transfer hasn't improved matters.
A variety of nice options, Big Trouble In Little China is presented in DTS, 5.1 and 2.0 sound options, with predictable results on sound quality. The DTS, although minutely superior to the 5.1 mix, relies heavily on some soaringly atmospheric background effects, which aren't complemented well enough in the 2.0 mix. Even so, the 2.0 has that distinct eighties sound to it, and is worth listening to if only to remind one of that decade's cinema experiences.
Screen Specific Commentary With Kurt Russell and John Carpenter: Not only is Kurt Russell a likeable Hollywood lead, but he is also a likeable off-screen personality as well. This commentary with Russell and director John Carpenter is highly informative, along with a nice and lengthy dose of humour and fun. The two talk at length and reminisce about the film, much like two friends meeting up at a reunion. They also discuss issues off topic, such as changing policies in the writer's guild and the way the original script mutated. Further proof if needed that commentaries should never be singular affairs.
Deleted Scenes: Eight deleted or alternative sequences presented in either the original workprint or Betamax video versions. Obviously the video and audio quality of these scenes are variable at best, but they are interesting to watch none the same, with some jokey Escape From New York references that never made it to the final cut. Also, in the 'Lava Sequence', there is a multi-angle function in which the viewer can choose to switch between the final version or the original, intended storyboard version.
Extended Ending: Although not featured on the DVD case, there is also an extended ending option, which details Jack's finishing off of one of the gangs from the film that was deleted from the finale. Again, nicer to have then to have not.
Featurette: An original 1986 featurette promoting the film with the usual small clips juxtaposed with promotional sound-bites. Not very interesting on the anecdote point of view, but a nice example of an eighties featurette. It appears to have been mastered off VHS, and even states VIDEO PRESS PACK at the end. The duration is seven minutes.
Interview With Richard Edlund: A thirteen minute interview with special effects designer Richard Edlund, detailing some of the effects shots that were implemented for the film. As Edlund is talking, a small clip window in the top left corner displays stills correlating to what he is describing, and the stills are available fullscreen as an alternate angle option. An interesting feature made better by the angle option.
Music Video: A very collectable item for all of the wrong reasons, the music video is of John Carpenter, Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace performing the title track, with clips of the film spliced in. Although it tries heavily to be a video of the MTV generation, it manages instead to be laughably funny due to Carpenter's immense lack of screen presence. The song, although dire, is actually tremendously catchy, so watch out at your peril!
Trailers / TV Spots: Two alternate original theatrical release trailers, and a Spanish trailer thrown in for good measure. The TV Spots are six in number and also include the pay-per-view advertisement for Fox.
Magazine Articles: Some promotional articles from magazines varying from American Cinematographer to Cinefex. The articles appear as on-screen text, and much effort has been in the interface to make the reading of the articles as hassle-free as possible.
Production Notes And Cast And Crew Filmographies: On screen textual information from the original press kit along with cast and crew filmographies.
Stills Gallery: A Collection of promotional stills from the film with navigational controls.
Big Trouble In Little China is an exciting feast that takes pity on the cerebrum yet delivers heavily on the enjoyment. It's slightly dated, and the picture quality could be improved, but the sound and extra departments are first rate and complement splendidly this classic eighties film.