**This review is based on a test disc provided by Arrow Video and may not reflect the final product. We will update the review if and when the final product is received.**
The Film: 5/5
Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) has seen a lot of hairy stuff in his travels across these United States, but nothing has prepared him for what he encounters during a return trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown district. A simple trip to the airport accompanying his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) to pick up his newly-arrived girlfriend Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) ends with the two men pursuing a gang of thugs known as the Lords of Death after they abduct Miao with the intention of selling her into white slavery. The next thing Jack knows, his beloved big rig has been stolen and he and Wang - along with sympathetic lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and knowledgeable mystic Egg Shen (Victor Wong) - are plunged into an unpredictable adventure beneath the city’s streets where the ancient Chinese sorcerer Lo Pan (James Wong) rules an underworld of monsters and kung fu masters with the power to shoot bolts of lightning from their fingertips. Lo Pan has captured Miao Yin because he needs a girl with green eyes to fulfill a prophecy that will restore him to human form and give him unimaginable powers. Only Jack’s brawn, Wang’s superior martial arts, and Egg’s expertise and magical potions can stop Lo Pan from bringing his devious plans to fruition and save both Miao Yin and Gracie - the latter also possessing of green eyes and intended to be the evil sorcerer’s sacrificial lamb.
Without question, John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is one of the weirdest and most undeniably amazing films released by a major studio in the history of cinema. I don’t think anyone involved in its making ever anticipated that it would have a longer shelf life than the vast majority of motion pictures released by both the studios and independent distributors in a single year. Carpenter had to work his way back into the good graces of Hollywood’s reigning money men following the critical and commercial blanket party that greeted the released of his polarizing genre masterpiece The Thing. He made the profitable Stephen King adaptation and the smash hit sci-fi love story Starman partly as an imagined penance, but branching out into more commercial territory and the successful results that emerged gave 20th Century Fox confidence that the uncompromising young dynamo from Kentucky could pull off making a marketable feature out of an unusual western script written by Gary Goldman (Total Recall) and David Z. Weinstein (a 3rd assistant director on The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, best known as Peter Sellers’ final movie). Carpenter loathed the initial concept even though he had been a lifelong fan of westerns - the bucolic widescreen oaters of John Ford and Howard Hawks probably had the greatest impact on his directing ambitions - so he tapped W.D. Richter to rewrite the screenplay and place the story in a contemporary setting. Richter had made his screenwriting career with the lavish, late-70’s remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dracula, but his gift for injecting a wry and intelligent sense of humor into the scripts for the underrated crime comedy Slither and Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon earned him a valuable reputation in the industry that he later parlayed into his first directing gig - the unclassifiable cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. He and Carpenter had been friends since their days as students at USC, and if there was anyone who could deliver the thrilling yet coyly subversive feature Carpenter desired to make, it was Richter.
There is so much at work in Big Trouble, from the script and performances to the music score and production design, that once it starts it takes off like a rocket and rarely lets up for a breath until the credits roll 95 minutes later. Carpenter and Richter took the bare thread of a plot from the original Goldman/ Weinstein draft and transplanted it dead center of a full-on genre freakazoid head trip blending Shaw Brothers kung fu epics, Alice in Wonderland, buddy comedies, 1940’s romantic comedies with snappy dialogue and headstrong heroines, Chinese mysticism, and the writings of Joseph Campbell. If this movie was a human being it would require immediate treatment for multiple personality disorder. But since it’s not we’re free to enjoy just the same. Big Trouble works on every level as cackling mad movie entertainment of a highest order few films of its ilk are able to attain, and it didn’t have to sell out to get there. Both puzzlingly mainstream and comfortably unconventional, it’s no major surprise that this film not only failed big time at the box office ($11 million domestic gross against a $20 million production budget and who knows how much else for prints and advertising) but also made its passionate director so incensed at the battles he had to wage to get it onto theater screens across the country two days before Independence Day 1986 that he vowed never to make a film for a major studio for the remainder of his career. Yet if Big Trouble in Little China was any less than the film it turned out to be then chances are we would not regard it with consistent joy and admiration nearly three decades after its release.
From a certain standpoint it’s understandable that activists in the Asian community were initially enraged that yet another big-budget movie portraying the Chinese as martial artists, wizened wizards, and power mad lunatics with droopy, Fu Manchu-style mustaches was being made by a Hollywood studio in what was supposed to be a more enlightened and progressive era of cinema. But Carpenter isn’t trafficking in cringe-inducing racial stereotypes here; the Chinese immigrants and Chinese-American citizens who populate the crazy, magical world of Big Trouble are average, everyday working class folks who break their backs just to make ends meet. They just happen to live in and understand a realm where the impossible becomes very possible better than any non-Asian outside could ever dream. These aren’t the smiling domestics and accommodating waiters that the American film industry reduced the Asian presence in motion picture history to for decades. In the past the studios thought nothing of hiring white actors for Asian roles, from Katherine Hepburn as a Chinese woman in MGM’s 1944 wartime drama Dragon Seed to the horrifying, trauma-inducing images of Mickey Rooney playing buck-toothed Japanese in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and John Wayne as the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. The Chinese characters in Big Trouble are no different than the typically white personalities populating any classic fantasy or adventure story; they are active participants in their own story, not background extras.
Thanks to the dazzling cinematography by Dean Cundey (I could list one or more of his past credits, but let’s just say the man shot your favorite movie, whatever it may be, and leave it at that) and John Lloyd’s (The Blues Brothers) detailed, immersive production design, the world of Big Trouble in Little China is one you could get lost in and emerge with a goofy grin when it was all over. Both Cundey and Lloyd had worked with Carpenter on The Thing, while Cundey had also served as the director of photography on the director’s classic features Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York, as well as the Carpenter-produced Halloween II and Halloween III: Season of the Witch. The director never had a better visual collaborator behind the camera than Cundey, in my honest opinion; the cinematographer’s immaculate widescreen compositions always suited Carpenter’s expansive vision better than anyone. Even when the action gets crazy and potentially baffling, Cundey makes sure it is at least easy to follow and wonderful to behold. Big Trouble was shot mostly on soundstages, even during exterior scenes set in alleyways, and the sets for the above-ground locations share an unassuming verisimilitude that never betray their artificial origins. When the action moves to the murky caverns and luxuriant offices and grand hallways beneath Lo Pan’s corporate front organization the Wing Kong Exchange things just get nuts. The Asian influence is readily apparent from the smallest room where the villains devise their diabolical plans to the Great Arcade where the big battle Big Trouble has been building to takes place. Art director Les Gobruegge (The Muppet Movie) unleashes some truly inspired designs in every location throughout the story, and the sets are filled with accurate details that add nuance to the narrative. Carpenter once again decided to compose the music score alongside his longtime partner in the recording studio Alan Howarth. What they achieved with their work on Big Trouble remains one of the best scores of Carpenter’s career; eschewing orchestral bombast for a simple but effective synthesizer soundtrack that perfectly matches the energy level of each scene and underscores the quieter moments without drowning them out. The final fight between the forces of good and evil is kicked into overdrive by one of the most propulsive music cues Carpenter and Howarth ever created; if you listen to it on CD all by its lonesome it almost plays like the house music for an Asian-theme technological discotheque. They probably have those somewhere in the world.
One of the major criticisms leveled against Big Trouble at the time of its release was that its supposed hero Jack Burton wasn’t really much of a hero. Audiences just couldn’t get over the handsome, macho white man becoming a glorified sidekick to the more adept Asian characters. So why is then that Jack Burton is the one character from the movie whose dialogue gets quoted by fans more than the others? Because Jack Burton is awesome, and so is Kurt Russell. The former child actor who graduated to the big time as Carpenter’s go-to leading man was meant to play every role he essayed on some of the director’s finest films. Russell’s easygoing, blue collar charm and genuine likeability makes it too difficult to not root for him to succeed - or at the very least survive - in every situation he gets himself into. He plays Jack Burton as a cool-headed blowhard, a man’s man who doesn’t like to back down from a fight but is fortunately smart enough to know when he’s in over his head. Burton is in over his head from the moment he and Wang encounter the Lords of Death at a San Francisco airport to the concluding battle in the depths of Lo Pan’s lair, but Russell never makes the character into a bumbling buffoon who has to be saved. He’s not ineffective when push comes to shove. It’s just that Burton is not always the one performing the standard hero duties. In a decade where lesser actors like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger built their careers on playing near-invincible one man wrecking crews, it was both refreshing and confounding (all depending on the audience) for the lead character in an expensive Hollywood summer comedy-adventure to be the equal of his supporting cast. Russell is by turns hilarious, manly, and a real sweetheart above all else as Burton. It’s one of his coolest performances to date.
In a sense, the real hero of Big Trouble in Little China is Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi. He and Burton spend the movie exchanging the hero and sidekick roles depending on the requirements of the scene, but Wang is the one with the most to lose in the person of his beloved Miao Yin. Dun is such a revelation here that it’s a real shame that he did not go on to be a more prolific actor, outside of a few television and indie film appearances. He matches Russell in the bravery and swagger departments and outclasses the star of the movie in the quieter scenes, but only because his character is simply better-written. Kim Cattrall was in the prime of her career when he snagged the role of the talkative Gracie Law. Her performance isn’t very showy, but Cattrall is able to give the character the kind of hellcat spirit and fierce intellect the strongest women in the films of Hawks and Sam Fuller possessed in great quantities, and she makes a good romantic foil for Russell though the two of them don’t exactly have the strongest chemistry. Victor Wong seem to always get stuck playing the wise old Chinese man in film; at least in Big Trouble he gets to inject warmth and a smartass sense of humor on par with Russell. The great character actor James Hong delivers one of the better performances of his career as the sad but demented villain Lo Pan, both funny and menacing in equal doses. Kate Burton (Scandal) admirably acquits herself as gutsy reporter Margot, a game and chipper secondary female character who gets rewarded for her troubles with a blossoming romantic subplot towards the end involving her and shy maitre d’ Eddie (Donald Li, The Avengers). Suzee Pai (Sharkey’s Machine) gets precious little dialogue but still makes a compelling damsel with her hypnotic eyes. Chinese kung fu movie star Carter Wong (Emperor of Shaolin Kung Fu) cuts an imposing presence as Lo Pan’s chief henchman Thunder, ably backed up by Peter Kwong (The Golden Child) and James Pax (Invasion U.S.A.) as fellow Storms Rain and Lightning, respectively.
Proving once and for all that you can’t mess with perfection, Arrow Video seems to have used the HD transfer of Big Trouble prepared by Fox for the movie’s 2009 Region A Blu-ray release for their own edition. Wise movie. Lacking in an overuse of digital noise reduction, the transfer was very clean and rich with improved visual details and sparkling colors. Every follicle of stubble on Russell’s face and liver spot on the old Lo Pan appear sharper than ever. The picture is framed in the film’s original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio - director Carpenter’s preferred ratio since the beginning of his professional career - and this high-definition restoration is very likely to be the best Dean Cundey’s cinematography for Big Trouble will ever look on home video, until the inevitable 4K transfer. Arrow has also brought over from Fox’s U.S. BR dual English audio options for our listening enjoyment in lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and uncompressed 2.0 Dolby Surround. Both sound mixes are unsurprisingly robust and contain no audible instances of distortion or deterioration. Music, dialogue, and the busy sound effects mix mesh beautifully together without overlap. The 2.0 track is recommended for standard television sets as it tends to be of a slightly increased volume. Carpenter’s music score is also presented on an isolated 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track with vibrant, ear-tickling precision. English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing have also been included.
Arrow’s new Blu-ray of Big Trouble in Little China ports over nearly every worthwhile bonus feature from Fox’s 2001 special edition 2-disc DVD and 2009 Blu-ray while including over seventy minutes of fresh retrospective interviews with several of the film’s major players, thereby making this BR the definitive release on the market.
Leading the pack is that classic audio commentary from the earlier releases that reunited John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. Chatting away like two old friends who haven’t seen each other in ages, these guys are clearly in their element and leave not a millisecond of dead air to be found on this track. They talk about the movie most of the time, but even with their conversation strays into unrelated topics like Carpenter’s admiration for Russell’s performance in Captain Ron and how his star’s family is doing these days. It is interesting to note that whenever they’re not talking Russell is laughing. Anyone who has heard the Carpenter/Russell commentaries on The Thing and Escape from New York should already expect that.
Nest up are seven deleted scenes taken from an earlier work print of the film. They were rightfully cut from the final version and add nothing to the proceedings, but you might find a few fleeting gems of deleted dialogue. The “Lava Sequence” scene was never completed, so storyboards have been inserted to give viewers a sense of what had been originally intended. “Six Demon Bag” is a 12-minute assembly of various deleted odds and ends taken from both work print and VHS sources. Mostly what we have are a lot of alternate angles of existing scenes, miniscule extensions, and more. Finally there is an extended ending (3 minutes) that wrapped up an unresolved subplot from early in the movie but would have felt extraneous had it remained in the movie.
Visual effects producer Richard Edlund appears in an interview (13 minutes) included with the earlier U.S. home video releases where he talks about the work that went into creating the many practical make-up effects and synthetic beasties of Big Trouble, illustrated by behind-the-scenes still photos. This is a multi-angle feature that allows you to toggle between viewing the photos in full screen or in a little window that appears in the corner of the frame during Edlund’s comments. A vintage promotional featurette (7 minutes) put together at the time of the movie’s release is full of on-set footage and brief soundbites from Carpenter, Russell, and co-stars Cattrall and Dun. To also help promote Big Trouble’s release Carpenter made a music video for the theme song of the same name he wrote and performed with his band the Coupe De Villes. That video (3 minutes) actually got some MTV airplay and is presented here in all its retina-scouring, cheeseball 80’s glory. Wrapping up the previously available supplements are two U.S. theatrical trailers (3 minutes), a Spanish theatrical trailer (3 minutes), six television spots (including a Pay-Per-View promo), and an extensive stills gallery featuring over 260 images.
Now let’s get to the new extras. For starters, the one and only John Carpenter returns to offer a contemporary perspective on making Big Trouble and the battles he waged with stubborn and confused Fox executives over it in “Return to Little China” (12 minutes). The man is brutally honest as he recalls the project’s origins as a straightforward western, the influences kung fu epics had on him prior to filming Big Trouble, dealing with Asian activists who thought he was making a “white man’s movie”, and the post-production headaches that lead to the creation of a new opening sequence that attempted to place the Burton character in a more heroic context. Carpenter’s brief story about a visit to the set paid by Michael Jackson (who would later use it for one of his music videos) is a keeper, as is the entire interview.
Giving us an actor’s view of the Big Trouble production is ol’ Jack Burton himself, Kurt Russell, in “Being Jack Burton” (21 minutes). Russell begins by talking about how he first came to collaborate with Carpenter on the 1979 television miniseries Elvis, going through their work together on Escape from New York and The Thing (Escape from L.A. is understandably not mentioned), and being the star of Big Trouble and all the acting and promotional baggage that came with the job. The actor saw the Burton character as a cross between Jack Nicholson’s cocksure smarm and John Wayne’s swaggering machismo. He also shares his memories of the problems the film encountered with studio higher-ups and espouses towards the end on its sizable cult following.
Cinematographer Dean Cundey is the focus of “Carpenter & I” (16 minutes). As its title indicates this interview is mostly dedicated to Cundey discussing his collaborations with Carpenter, but he also delves briefly into his beginnings as a D.P. on drive-in exploitation fare and explains his philosophy of visual storytelling.
“Producing Big Trouble” (15 minutes) sits down with producer Larry Franco, Russell’s former brother-in-law, to talk in detail about Big Trouble and the other movies he made with Russell and Carpenter. As with the director and star interviews, Franco touches upon the film’s poor reception at Fox, but he also discusses the casting of the actors playing Lo Pan’s henchmen the Storms and shares some thoughts on working within the modern Hollywood studio system.
Lastly, stuntman Jeff Imada is interviewed for “Staging Big Trouble” (12 minutes). From his training in the martial arts under one of Bruce Lee’s prized pupils to his initial desire to become an actor while doing stunt work on the side to getting hired onto Big Trouble and beginning a fruitful ongoing collaboration with John Carpenter that continues to this day, Imada is able to cram in a lot of stories and personal background in such a short amount of time.
The packaging for this release will also feature a reversible cover sleeve with the original poster art on one side and a newly commissioned image by Jay Shaw on the opposite. Inside the case Arrow has provided us with a collector’s booklet containing a new essay on Big Trouble written by John Kenneth Muir, author of The Films of John Carpenter, a reprint of an article on the film’s visual effects that originally appeared in American Cinematographer magazine, and original still photos and promotional poster art.
A steelbook edition of this Blu-ray is also available.
If you need any further reason to buy Arrow’s Region B Blu-ray of Big Trouble in Little China even though you’ve doubtlessly read the rest of this review, then you are clearly not the audience for this movie. Those of you who are, you never needed any further convincing. Arrow has trumped the competition by adding five worthwhile supplemental interviews to the same A/V quality and bonus features available on BR here in the States, among other neat little things. If you want to own Big Trouble in high-definition this is the edition to buy. Highly recommended.