No. 8: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
AS THIS IS PART OF A RETRO NOSTALGIA BINGE AS OPPOSED TO A TRADITIONAL REVIEW, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS PRESENT IN THE TEXT.
Now we're talking! I can't believe this one is so low on the list, 'cuz Big Trouble in Little China is nothing less than a cult film masterpiece. This would easily be one of my desert island picks, and if I counted every time I've watched this film on my fingers, I'd have a freakishly huge hand to make room for all those digits.
First off, I'm a John Carpenter fan. Sure, his more recent fare hasn't been as great as I would wish, but in the seventies and eighties I loved just about everything he did. And if you don't know what his directorial portfolio entails, please take a break and swing by the IMDb for a few moments. Known primarily for his horror/sci-fi efforts, BTILC was a completely different entity for Carpenter. It was a tribute to Hong Kong films that was way ahead of its time, as in the eighties Americans generally weren't tuned into what was going on in that industry in the way of martial arts fantasy movies. We were still thinking of the classic 70s Shaw Brothers pictures, and by the time we tuned into the wuxia work of Tsui Hark et al, the entire decade had passed. So this movie was really speaking to a very small cult audience. Luckily, it also taps into American action tropes, most notably in Kurt Russell's John Wayne-ian truck driving loudmouth Jack Burton.
Jack is the owner of the big rig Pork Chop Express, and when he's not flapping his jaws over the CB airwaves with his road weary ‘wisdom', he's hanging out post-delivery in Chinatown playing Mah-Jong with his old pal Wang Chi. This is one point in which the film so cleverly twists Hollywood storytelling techniques, for although Jack Burton is supposed to be our protagonist, his Chinese ‘sidekick' is in all reality the leading man. Carpenter and screenwriter W.D. Richter (director of number 9 on this list) deftly pulled a sleight of hand maneuver by having the heroic American male lead play the doofus cohort to the real hero, Dennis Dun's love stricken Wang Chi. Wang needs Jack's help to get to the airport in time to pick up his bride-to-be Miao Yin, but their reunion is delayed when the girl is abducted by a group of dangerous youths with crazy sunglasses. Or maybe they're crazy youths with dangerous sunglasses. Either way.
Jack is the audience's representative, as he's often just as clueless (if not more so) as to what's going on than we are, and he's soon dragged off on a guided tour through the Chinese-American underworld of San Francisco. Miao Yin is kidnapped by the aforementioned street punks with silly glasses, who we later learn to be The Lords of Death - street-level enforcers for an ancient warlord/modern businessman David Lo Pan. Lo Pan is a criminal mastermind, demon ghost and doddering old man all in one, with a legitimate business front called The Wing Kong Exchange.
A whole gaggle of friends emerge to help Jack and Wang, including Eddie (the maitre'd at Wang's restaurant The Dragon of the Black Pool), Kim Cattrall's Gracie Law (a low-rent attorney protecting émigrés from the underground slave trade and prostitution rings), her newspaper contact Margo, and last but not least the Yoda of the group - tour bus driver/alchemist Egg Shen (who, in a flash forward scene, actually introduces the film and wows X-Files alum Jerry Hardin by summoning lightning between his hands). The group tries to infiltrate a local brothel (with Russell playing a hilariously slimy, gap-toothed yokel named Harry Swanson as part of the ruse), and learn that Lo Pan wants both women because of the green eyes they both possess, an apparent rarity among Chinese women. If he sacrifices a woman with green eyes, Lo Pan will in turn appease an ancient demon that may grant him a rebirth into flesh as a young warrior.
Lo Pan's upper echelon henchmen are the awe inspiring Three Storms, a trio of basket-headed badasses who are most likely an homage to very similar assassins in the classic Lone Wolf and Cub series. The Storms are Thunder, Rain and Lightning, and not only do they possess powers related to their meteorological titles, but they sport nifty hand weapons such as Lightning's tiny spinning blades attached to his palms. Their fight scenes employ plenty of wirework, and some of Rain's brawls with Wang Chi involve silly bits where they both fly through the air interminably while exchanging sword blows.
Monsters are at hand as well; most of them in the depths of Lo Pan's domain or in the dank caverns deep beneath the streets of Chinatown. These include a very Lovecraftian tentacled thingy hiding in the dark recesses of rock walls, the Orangutang-from-hell ‘Wild Man' and the multi-eyed floating orb acting as a sentry for Lo Pan (complete with an eyeball on the tip of its tongue.) While in the underworld, we are introduced to the numerous 'hells' of Chinese Mythology, including the Hell of the Upside Down Sinners. Wang, his Uncle Chu and Egg Shen are all constantly explaining the complexities of their culture to Jack/Us as the story progresses.
Luckily, there is a benevolent version of the Lords of Death street gang, and they are the yellow-bandana sporting Chang Sing. These guys are the stuff of legend. During one early brawl that disrupts a street-based funeral procession, they often salute themselves during battle with a hand gesture that involves facing the palm outward and extending the index finger upward. I soon became addicted to performing this gesture, and others joined suit. Do this to someone and you'll instantly find out whether or not they're a Big Trouble In Little China fan.
Another reason that this film entered the fans' consciousnesses so deeply is the dialogue - this is one of the most quote worthy films of all time. Popular Movie Quote lists abound, but I am dead serious in saying that any such list that omits Big Trouble in Little China officially sucks ass. Hard. Phrases involving 'Black blood of the Earth', a 'six demon bag', or simply the word 'Indeed!' will live on forever in the brains of its acolytes.
Though the film was made 20 years ago, it almost plays better today, now that it's audience is more attuned to the tone for which it was reaching. Sadly, it bombed at the box office during the summer of 86, and I was one of the few people I know who actually saw it in the theater. It prospered on video however, and quickly became a subject of intense fandom, including fan fiction and custom merchandise. Much of this surrounded the great website 'The Wing Kong Exchange', an early internet entity that offered multimedia downloads, artwork and much fan speculation/wishlists regarding potential sequels or television series. Neither of which appeared, but if anything I think the latter option would be the best bet. A direct filmic sequel this late in the game would invariably be a disappointment, much like Russell and Carpenter's own Escape From LA.
Much like with Legend, this is one film that I obsessively collected, starting with VHS dupes from cable. I then stepped up to the rare Fox widescreen laserdisc, which suited me just fine for a while despite Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas' complaints that it was framed completely wrong. Luckily, DVD is a watershed era for cult film fans, probably because the fans themselves have gotten old enough to become involved and realize that it doesn't hurt to give 'crappy' movies the proper love they deserve. So I almost wet myself when Fox unveiled a remarkably well-done double disc release (though some weird digital shifting occurs occasionally, probably in an attempt to reduce the effect of gate weave). The commentary track with Carpenter and Russell during the feature is fun if unfocused (they tend to talk more about their families than the film), but the second disc has a treasure trove of goodies, including deleted scenes, interviews with effects master Richard Edlund, and a great archive of written materials released in support of the film.
I was also a big fan of the soundtrack by Carpenter himself (yes, even the very silly sounding title track by his band 'The Coup DeVilles'- the hilariously cheesy video for which appears on the aforementioned DVD release), and managed to scrounge up a copy of the original vinyl release way back when. Apparently a CD has been officially released, which I hope to obtain sometime. And if you don't think I'm enough of a Big Trouble in Little China nerd, I not only picked up copies of the original script and press kit, but drew a huge picture of Jack Burton on my High School Physics book cover and taped the whole movie on audio cassette so I could listen to it anywhere. Yes, I listened to the audio of the film during a plane trip to Florida, and during numerous car rides in my classic Plymouth Satellite. And if you take all of my BTILC merchandise, I certainly won't be able to cut a bottle in half since my mind and my spirit will have gone north and south.