U.S.A. ,  1986
Directed by John Carpenter.
Some movies are almost impossible to review. How to review Star Wars, for example? It would have been easy to do so, just out of the theater, pen in hand. But decades and dozens of viewings later, when it has become a cult icon, when it has been mangled by its creator, how can anyone reflect on the film and write a review on it now? Why would anyone want to read a review of it, when everyone has their own personal memories of the film which make reviews and analysis largely pointless?
And so as I approach Big Trouble in Little China, I have the same feelings of inadequacy. I hardly remember when I first saw it -- I think I sort of sniggered a bit and rolled my eyes. I never saw it theatrically, rather I probably rented it at the local video store (in the old days, before Blockbuster). It didn't make much of an impression -- or rather, it made none at all, especially when compared to other John Carpenter films like The Thing and Halloween.
But then, years later, when I was home from college, I found my much younger brother took a liking to the film. He had it on tape, recorded off of some cable channel, probably. And he watched it constantly. It seemed like every time I came into the family room, there it was, on the TV. It was after the dozenth or so time that I saw the film again, that I suddenly thought, you know, this film is really great entertainment. Not a great film, no, not at all, but great entertainment, the way that Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom tried and failed to be. It's sort of like a cheap pulp novel on speed. And the usual heroic muscleman is removed from the film and replaced with just a stupid clod. It's also the first film to combine Hong Kong action aesthetic with a Hollywood production, and it hasn't been beaten at that game since.
It all starts when honky-tong trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) goes with his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) to pick his new wife up at the airport. She gets kidnapped instead, by gang members working for the sinister Lo Pan (James Hong). Things rapidly spiral out of control from there, as they get embroiled in tong fights in the back alleys of Chinatown, men with supernatural powers fly out of the sky to attack them, and a reporter that tags along to break the story (Kim Cattrall) finds herself kidnapped as well. Eventually our heroes must delve deep into the underground Hells beneath Chinatown to defeat Lo Pan at his secret hideout before he sacrifices the women under his power and gains back his youth and power. Their only hope lies in the knowledge of an old curio shop owner, Egg Shen (Victor Wong).
When approached in the right spirit, there's something just utterly delightful about this film. The other film my younger brother used to watch non-stop was Tremors (1990), so now these films will forever be linked together in my mind. Both shared the same sense of light-hearted danger, average-joe type heroes, and an inventive and imaginative script. (They also both shared Victor Wong). Big Trouble in Little China performs the near magical feat of taking itself completely seriously while being totally ridiculous.
Remembering the film so fondly, but not having seen it again in quite some time, when preparing this issue of The Illuminated Lantern, I picked up the new, lavish, two DVD set of the film, and brought it home to my incredulous wife. I popped up some popcorn, we sat down together on the couch, and I turned it on. "A classic," I assured her, and sat down to enjoy the film one more time.
But this time, it was pretty awful. I could feel my wife shifting uncomfortably next to me and eying a magazine on the floor wondering if I would notice if she started turning pages with her toes. Somehow, it just wasn't seeming as endearing and fun as it once was. Part of the problem, I think, was just how slick the DVD package was. The grainy fullscreen dupe I used to watch seemed low low-fi, with special effects jumbled together just well enough so that they didn't fall apart. On a crisp, clean, widescreen disc, all the imperfections of the story seemed to be all the more glaring. Or, maybe I'm just older now.
No matter what version you watch, Kim Cattrall is going to make you wince. Whatever she's trying to do is just not working, here. (It becomes even more painful to see her interviewed in the DVD extras, explaining how Carpenter wanted her to adopt a certain style -- because then it is even more evident how far she was from the mark). And the only other woman in the story, the Chinese bride, well, I'm not sure if she even has a single line. She just stood around looking beautiful.
Allright, so it isn't a chick flick. So what? There is some ass kicking kung fu, at least. The evil trio of Kung Fu villains, Thunder, Rain, and Lightning, rip their way through the picture like exiles from the planet Krypton. And if anything, I appreciate the presence of Hong Kong action star Carter Wong (as Thunder) more now than I did then. He's fantastic. And hey, his english isn't too bad, either.
Kurt Russell turns in a fine performance. He has the ability to play a comically idiotic character who thinks he's hot shit, without giving up the game and giving the audience a few knowing winks, as other, less sure actors often do. Instead, he is fully Jack Burton, causing half the audience to laugh at how over the top he is, and the other half to look on, confused, missing the joke, and thinking "This is stupid." Kurt Russell really brings the character to life, and this is another classic collaboration between him and Carpenter, similar in some ways to the other larger than life but tongue in cheek character he played for Carpenter in Escape from New York and Escape from L.A..
The press release and other materials like to play up the fact that the Asian-American character is the lead, here, and not the other way around. Unfortunately, this idea doesn't really hold up when watching the film. Dennis Dun is charming, in his way, but not very charismatic, and Kurt Russell, ostensibly the sidekick, becomes the de-facto star of the picture anyway.
Chinatown itself, in Big Trouble in Little China, is a surreal magical-fantasy world. Carpenter uses it as a doorway to the world of Hong Kong movies, where suddenly everyone can flip and fly through the air and possess magical powers. Rather than the usual annoying portrayal of Chinatown as a seedy and dangerous place, here the stereotype is elevated to the place it belongs -- pure fantasy.
I love this film. It's really terrible. No, I love it. Really it looms too large for me, I can't fully wrap my mind around it. I guarantee some will sit down to watch and say, "What's the big deal? This is dumb." And others will sit down and laugh, and say, "Where have you been all my life?" Such is the effect of Big Trouble in Little China.
Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 19, 2004.