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 its spectacular sets, grandiose fight scenes, make-up and SPFX, even when compared to all the big action sequences and FX of his previous film, the sci-fi/romance Starman. Carpenter gives it all a lightning 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 its 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 its 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?!
3 and 1/2 (out of 4) Jack Burton T-shirt images!
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. A 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 its 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 its share of laughs and comic moments to mix with the more chilling and thrilling sequences the film presents and let’s not forget its 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.
3 and 1/2 (out of 4) mystic swords…of course this film has a few of those, why wouldn’t it?