TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

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BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Once again director John Carpenter was ahead of his time with this spin on the type of SPFX filled supernatural/martial arts flicks that were being made as part of the revisionist Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s like Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain (1983). Unfortunately, like his masterpiece The Thing, Big Trouble failed at the box office and would only years later be recognized and loved for the classic it is. As an avid fan of Carpenter, I was there opening night in 1986 and my friends and I loved it and immediately started quoting characters and making references, years before it got the attention it deserved. I’m proud to have championed this flick from the beginning. I had yet to see Zu, but heard enough and saw enough from the film, to know what Carpenter was doing. The Hong Kong cinema wouldn’t catch on here in the US till the early 90s and sadly it was only then when movie fans realized that Carpenter nailed the spirit and frantic fun of those movies perfectly with this deliriously entertaining flick.

This martial arts/action/fantasy/comedy starts out with obnoxious but lovable truck driver, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) visiting his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) the owner of a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When going to the airport with Wang to pick up his bride-to-be Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), Burton meets spunky lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and witnesses the abduction of Miao Yin by a ruthless Chinese street gang. Now the macho, but out of his element, Burton is pulled into a world of sorcery, martial arts and monsters as he vows to help Wang retrieve his fiancé from evil 2000 year old sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong) whose marriage to the green-eyed Chinese girl will render him corporeal once more and unleash him upon our world. Armed with his bravado, Wang, Gracie and good sorcerer Egg Shen (Victor Wong), Jack enters an underground world filled with supernatural warriors and lethal creatures and faces the fight of his life but…”It’s all in the reflexes” for this wannabe hero!

Simply put, Big Trouble In Little China is an absolute blast of a good time with Carpenter at the top of his game delivering an action packed and FX filled adventure that is a delight from start to finish. He populates the film with some of the liveliest and most colorful characters in a Carpenter film and proves that the master of horror and suspense could also master comedy and fantasy too. Not to mention an exhilarating martial arts flick as well, as the movie is loaded with intense and thrilling action scenes to go along with the monsters and magic. And like the Hong Kong films that the script…by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, adapted by W.D. Richter…pays homage to, the movie perfectly mixes the hand to hand combat with the supernatural elements to provide top notch entertainment. Carpenter once again scores the film…and sings the film’s theme song with his band The Coup De Ville’s…and frequent collaborator and cinematographer Dean Cundey returns to give a sumptuously colorful look to the incredible ancient China themed production design and the perfectly framed shots by the master director. It’s a true Asian fantasy world they create beneath modern day Chinatown to match the ancient China setting that the films this is inspired by generally have. It may be Carpenter’s most elaborately staged movie up to this point with it’s spectacular sets, grandiose fight scenes, make-up and SPFX even with all the big action sequences and FX of his previous film, the sci-fi/romance Starman.  Carpenter gives it all a lightening fast pace and energetic intensity…as well as, a generous dose of wacky humor.

And as for the cast, Kurt Russell is obviously having an over-the-top good time with one of his greatest characters, the lovable lug Jack Burton. He’s an obnoxious legend in his own mind, but Russell makes him once of his most endearing portrayals and certainly one of his most quotable characters aside from Snake Plissken. The rest of the cast including Dennis Dun as the noble and love-struck Wang, Cattral as the adorable yet feisty Gracie, Wong as tour bus driver and sorcerer Egg Shen and Hong as the eccentric and powerful Lo Pan are all having the time of their lives with their comic book style characters and it really helps solidify the live action Chinese fantasy world in which the film is set.

Sadly under-appreciated at the time of it’s release, this film is now getting the love and respect it deserves and has a large and faithful following that will drop a quote from one of it’s many delightfully hilarious lines at any given time. It’s a funny, action-packed fantasy and simply one of John Carpenter’s best films in a versatile filmography. A real blast and one of my favorite movies. Also stars Donald Li as Wang’s bud Eddie and Kate Burton as naive reporter Margo Litzenberger. If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?!

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 Jack Burton T-shirt images (out of 4)!

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BONUS REVIEW

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ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN (1983)

While I have not read a direct quote myself, it is said that Carpenter has stated that this film is the film that inspired the making of Big Trouble In Little China. It is certainly the most famous and closest in content and tone of the Hong Kong films around that time, so it’s easy to believe. Chinese Ghost Story wouldn’t be released until 1987 which would then be followed by an avalanche of Chinese fantasy/martial arts epics that continues even today, so Zu is a strong bet to be the film that writers Goldman and Weinstein and director Carpenter were trying to catch the spirit of. As I am looking back at Carpenter’s martial arts classic, I thought I would take a look back, as well, at one of the first of the new wave Hong Kong cinema to catch the attention of the West and bring legendary Hong Kong director/producer Tsui Hark and his sumptuous visual style to the film world’s attention.

Like the gangs in Carpenter’s classic, the ancient China set Zu features warring factions…designated by the colors they wear…all trying to take control of the Zu mountains. When fate separates soldier Di Ming Qi (Yuen Biao) from his troop, like Jack Burton, the over his head grunt becomes involved in a battle of good vs evil involving supernaturally powered warriors, both male and female, monsters, magic and powerful sorcerers representing both sides.

Though fairly low budget, Hark provides some spectacular FX filled battles, some very atmospheric and beautifully designed sets and settings, with some sumptuous and atmospheric cinematography by Bill Wong. The same kind of elements that Big Trouble in Little China is filled with. The production design is quite lavish with it’s massive temples and cavernous mountain passes and Hark also fills his movie with demons and monsters to go along with our heroes and villains and there are mystical battles and demonic possessions involving creature and warrior alike. The action is quite exciting as are the fantasy set pieces it is featured in and this is the first film to really put to use the rapid fire editing that would become a trademark of the Hong Kong cinema of this era and is imitated by so many of today’s filmmakers. The SPFX are well orchestrated for a low budget film and even employed Western FX masters Robert Blalack and Peter Kuran in creating some of visual artistry. The sets are also quite extravagant and really add to the film’s fantasy atmosphere which at times resembles an Asian themed Disney fairy tale with a dark edge. As with Carpenter’s film, Zu also has it’s share of laughs and comic moments to mix with the more chilling and thrilling sequences the film presents and let’s not forget it’s share of beautiful ladies such as legendary Hong Kong actress Brigitte Lin whose gorgeous yet lethal Ice Queen, can charm a man or literally freeze him solid.

Sure, all these years later this charming Hong Kong classic may seem cheesy to some and does get silly at times, but to me it’s a nostalgic and really fun martial arts fantasy that inspired many a filmmaker and one of John Carpenter’s most entertaining flicks…not to mention getting the Hong Kong cinema back on the film geek map after the prolific martial arts films of the 70s ran their course. Also stars Hong Kong movie legend Sammo Hung and has fight choreography by another Hong Kong cinema legend, actor and choreographer Corey Yeun. A really fun movie.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 mystic swords (out of 4)…of course this film has a few of those, why wouldn’t it? zu rating

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CHARACTER AUTOPSY: THE 3 FACES OF KURT-THE CARPENTER COLLABORATIONS

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THE THREE FACES OF KURT: THE CARPENTER/RUSSELL BIG SCREEN COLLABORATIONS!

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Photo: Empire Magazine

THE START OF FILM HISTORY

If there’s one thing you can definitely say about legendary director John Carpenter, it’s that he creates some great and iconic characters to inhabit his great movies. And if there’s one actor that fits Carpenter’s characters like a glove, it’s Kurt Russell. The two would collaborate five times together, so far, starting with the TV movie Elvis in 1979, with Russell playing the King Of Rock And Roll, whom the actor had actually worked with on It Happened At The World’s Fair in 1963. Of course, Elvis was not a character created by Carpenter, but it would be the start of a five picture journey with Russell playing three of Carpenter’s most iconic creations and one true life legend. The King aside, lets take a look at three of John Carpenter’s most memorable characters as they were brought to life by Kurt Russell, already a veteran actor from the age of 10.

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Russell as The King…

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…and Russell with the King in 1963’s It Happened At The World’s Fair

SNAKE PLISSKEN: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)

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One of cinema’s most iconic and underused character’s is ex-soldier and anti-hero Snake Plissken, who first appeared in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York in 1981. Carpenter had to fight with Avco Embassy pictures over the casting of Russell as the studio preferred legendary film tough guy Charles Bronson, an established action star, as apposed to the former Disney child actor, Russell. But Carpenter stood his ground and Russell stepped into the role of the one-eyed, grizzled outlaw who get’s arrested on the eve of a terrorist attack on Air Force One, which leaves The President (Donald Pleasence) stranded inside NYC…which in this near future, is a walled maximum security prison. As portrayed by Kurt Russell, Snake Plissken is one part Clint Eastwood’s ‘man with no name’ and one part honey badger. Plissken doesn’t care about the rest of the world or The President, he sees his mission into the hellhole of NYC as a way out of spending the rest of his life there. Who cares if the world is on the brink of all out war, all he wants is that presidential pardon in his hands and he really doesn’t care about the rest…or does he? Despite his outward apathy, Plissken does show some remorse over those who lose their lives helping him rescue The President and even more important, the tape recording he has with him.  Although, let’s be honest, it was Snake’s little white lie about getting those who help him out of NYC, too that insured their cooperation in the first place, but when you have two microscopic explosive devices in your neck ready to explode when your 24 hours is up, you make some selfish choices. Russell’s Snake is cool as ice, but not quite cold which is why we like him so much. He’s anti-authority, he walks to the beat of his own drum and if need be, he’s got plenty of fighting and weapons skills to throw down if he has to, but he still seems to have a soft spot for the innocents caught in the way of the mechanizations of those in charge. He’s an outlaw, but one that only seems to like sticking it to ‘The Man’ every chance he gets. A fallen war hero with an Eastwood growl who’s turned his back on the government he fought for because of how expendable they see the rest of us.

We all wish we were as cool as Snake and flip the establishment the bird with our very existence like he does. And Escape ends with the ultimate FU as he destroys the very prize he was sent in for and walks away with a smoke and without a care as he may just have sent the world back to war. Sadly, Snake would appear only once more on screen in the disappointing Escape From L.A. which was, for some reason, more of a remake and played for laughs. Russell was still cool as Snake, but the film around him was one of Carpenter’s lesser efforts. Still, Snake is a classic movie icon and one of the greatest anti-heros of all time and despite remake talk, I can’t see anyone but Russell in the role.

R.J. MACREADY: THE THING (1982)

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Carpenter and Russell would work together again the very next year on Carpenter’s remake of The Thing From Another World simply titled The Thing. Carpenter’s version abandon’s Howard Hawks’ walking vegetable to return to the original source material of John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? about a shapeshifting alien creature that invades an Antarctic research station and is capable of absorbing and imitating anyone and everyone it comes in contact with. Russell is cast as helicopter pilot R. J. MacReady, who reluctantly takes charge of the situation when suspicion and paranoia causes the chain of command to quickly collapse. Like most of the Outpost 31 members, MacReady seems to be a misfit and social outcast who, for reasons never fully explained, seems to prefer being at the far reaches of the planet and spending most of his day with a bottle of scotch when he is not in the air. But Mac seems more a wounded soul than angry like Plissken.  And once the alien threat becomes known, he realizes the importance of stopping it before it gets back to the world he himself seems to be trying to avoid. He also realizes that he is best fit to take control and does so, however reluctantly. Mac would rather be left alone, but rises to the occasion when thrust into this fantastic and unbelievable situation. Unlike Plissken, MacReady is willing to give up his own life to save those he seems to want to distance himself from. In a way he is just as cool as Snake, but for different reasons. Snake is an authority hating, self serving, outlaw. While Mac is an anti-social, yet ultimately selfless, outcast who is willing to do what’s needed to stop “The Thing” from ever leaving the cold wasteland it had the unfortunate luck of crashing it’s ship into. Certain items of clothing lead one to believe Mac, like Snake, might be ex-military, but that too is never touched upon. Mac is a bit more of an enigma than Snake, but no less heroic and for far more noble reasons.

Russell is again top notch here as he perfectly creates a man who’s pain and reluctance are shadowed in his eyes, as he fights something imagined only in nightmares, in a suicidal effort to save the world. Where Snake is an anti-hero, MacReady is a true hero, and depending on how you view the film’s ambiguous ending, maybe one that has paid the ultimate price and gladly, if it means the rest of us are safe in our beds. Sadly The Thing was a box office and critical disappointment when it first opened, but fortunately,  it is now recognized as the great film classic that it is. Arguably John Carpenter’s best movie.

JACK BURTON: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1985)

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Three years after The Thing Carpenter and Russell teamed up again for the deliriously fun Big Trouble In Little China, a movie that was criminally under-appreciated when it first came out, but like a lot of Carpenter’s other works, is now recognized and loved as a cult classic… and rightfully so! Russell, this time, plays truck driver and legend in his own mind, Jack Burton. Unlike Snake and Mac, Jack is a lovable jerk who fancies himself far more the hero than he actually is, due to his massive ego. He’s obnoxious and overbearing at times, but there is something about his unapologetic bravado that makes him incredibly endearing. And Russell’s deft comic performance is a large part of why. Jack is obviously played for laughs and Russell is very funny and his timing is perfect as this lovable lug dives into numerous situations way over his head just to get the money owed him in a bet, recapture his stolen truck and impress and then save a girl who he claims he doesn’t even like, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall). Russell’s mullet wearing Jack faces, Chinese gang members, mystically powered martial artists and creatures right out of Chinese folklore all with the swagger of John Wayne and the over confidence of a high school jock trying to impress the hot cheerleader. And he is one of Carpenter’s most all-time quotable characters as he quips his way from one fantastic situation to the next, barely messing up his hair, but somehow managing to mess up our villain Lo Pan’s (James Hong) plans.

Big Trouble In Little China is a blast as Carpenter seems to pay tribute to some of the early Chinese fantasies like Tsui Hark’s Zu ,The Warriors of Magic Mountain. If America had caught on to the new wave Hong Kong cinema that started in the early 80s a few years sooner, the film probably would have been a big hit. Once again Carpenter was ahead of his time and Kurt Russell was along with him for the highly entertaining ride, delivering every line of dialog with scene-chewing relish. Personally, I think Jack Burton was another character that needed a film series or at least a sequel much like Plissken. It was great to see Kurt Russell able to have such a good time with this character after his last two characters played for the master Carpenter were a study in intensity, which Russell pulled off in his usual classic style. This is what happens when a great director and a great actor get together…movie magic!

As a huge fan of both Carpenter and Russell, my fanboy dream would be to see them work that magic together one more time before they retire. That would be awesome! But for now, we have some great movies to watch and some sidesplitting-ly wonderful commentary on the DVDs and Blu-Rays which illustrate just how well these two cinema legends get along and why their cinematic collaborations are such classics!

-MonsterZero NJ

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