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Big Trouble in Little China: Special Edition

20th Century Fox Home Video

Starring Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, Kim Cattrall,
Victor Wong, James Hong, Kate Burton,
Donald Li, and Suzee Pai

Written by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein
"Adapted" by W.D. Richter

Directed by John Carpenter

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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

I. Introduction: Big Trouble, Big Icebreaker

Judged by its referents, 1986's Big Trouble in Little China was almost a decade ahead of its time. To the best of my knowledge, director John Carpenter's fast-paced tale of a doofus trucker (Kurt Russell) lost in a world of Chinese black magic, mythical beasts and airborne martial arts is the first mainstream Hollywood film (by a long shot) to try and assimilate the work of such Hong-Kong magic-fu masters as Tsui Hark.

(If you're reading this, you may already know that Hark was the director of 1983's Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, not to mention the producer of most of the Chinese Ghost Story series — which features such sublime magic-fu weirdness as a sorcerer doing thrilling aerial battle with a gigantic tongue.)

Anyway. It could be argued that Carpenter, for all his innovations in the world of horror, should also be credited with laying the groundwork for the Hong Kong invasion of Hollywood in the mid-'90s. Intentionally or not, the peppy Big Trouble — which bombed miserably at the box office in '86, but found a sizable cult audience on home video — acted as a sort of John the Baptist for Jackie Chan and John Woo and Yuen Woo-ping and Jet Li.

I know that's a sweeping statement, and it's probably wrong, but bear with me for a second: Big Trouble, I'd argue, is a crucial "bridge film" — hard-core Asian fantasy filmmaking watered down through a Western lens (complete with a befuddled Western hero as tour guide) that prepared audiences for the more extreme visual pyrotechnics of the HK masters. Of course it bombed: Joe and Jane Sixpack had never seen anything like it before.

But there's more to Big Trouble than its (arguable) role as cultural icebreaker. For one thing, it's hugely entertaining. It also subverts action-movie conventions — turning the traditional hero/sidekick arrangement on its ear — and it incorporates some unexpected influences, including Howard Hawks screwball comedy. More on that in a minute. We're here today because Fox Home Video, nodding to the movie's cult fan base, has released the film as a dandy, extras-packed two-disc DVD set — making the murky VHS edition a blessed memory. So let's break down the film and platters, shall we?

[Public-service announcement: If your opinion of Big Trouble is already set in stone, you might want to skip ahead to Section VI, where we get into the commentary and extras.]

II. The Story

Dimwitted, mullet-sporting pig-hauler Jack Burton (Russell) — gifted only with quick reflexes and totally unwarranted self-confidence — rolls into Chinatown. En route to collect a gambling debt owed him by restaurateur Wang (Dennis Dun), they stop to pick up Wang's green-eyed fiancé Miao Yin (Suzee Pai). But alas, she's been kidnapped — twice — first by petty thugs and then by David Lo Pan (James Hong), an undead villain who must marry a green-eyed Chinese girl to "rule the earth from beyond the grave."

Oh, and the brigands steal Jack's semi, "The Pork Chop Express."

So Jack and Wang, chasing Miao Yin's captors, find themselves entering an increasingly surreal world patterned on Chinese mythology — a world of gunplay, martial arts, slavery rings, wizards, monsters and flying henchmen named "Thunder," "Lightning" and "Rain" (with powers to match). Along the way, the movie gathers a hefty cast of characters worthy of a '40s comedy — a fast-talking lawyer (Kim Cattrall), a screwy reporter (Kate Burton), an eccentric old wise man (Victor Wong), a snazzy maitre'd (Donald Li) — all of them playing off the blunt ignorance of Burton, who talks with a John Wayne drawl and looks and acts like he'd be a lot more comfortable behind the wheel of a '78 Camaro. By film's end, the usual hero/ethnic-sidekick dynamic has been completely inverted, with Wang doing all the physical heroics and winning the girl and Burton getting smeared with lipstick and knocking himself unconscious and just generally making an ass of himself.

III. Some amusing trivia: Jack Burton v. Buckaroo Banzai

The Big Trouble script, as originally written by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, was set in the Old West. It was "adapted" to the present day by W.D. Richter, who had himself just directed Buckaroo Banzai — another oddball comedy/fantasy/box-office flop. To further complicate matters: Hard-core geeks will remember that, in the proposed Banzai sequel, Team Banzai was to take on evil Asian warlord Hanoi Xan and his World Crime League. The parallels to Big Trouble in Little China are obvious — and one wonders how much (if any) of the never-shot Banzai sequel made it into Carpenter's film.

IV. What's really great about Big Trouble in Little China?

  1. Kurt Russell. As Carpenter correctly notes on the commentary track, Russell is that rare, unpretentious leading man who's unafraid of making himself look foolish onscreen.
  2. The humor. It comes out of the characters and rapid-fire pacing and absurd situations rather than from cheap one-liners. On the page, as you'll see in the section on deleted scenes, Jack Burton's dialogue is not particularly funny; but Russell and the others (especially Kim Cattrall) make their words sing by delivering them with a rapid-fire conviction that just stinks of Howard Hawks — whom Carpenter has often cited as an influence.
  3. The pacing. Even today, in an entertainment climate saddled with a sort of collective ADD, Big Trouble moves at a brisk clip. The giddy pace really carries the viewer along, helping an outlandish tale go down smoothly. (Alternate, longer cuts of scenes — found in the DVD extras — really bear out Carpenter's skill in this arena, BTW.)
  4. The music — save for the pop song Carpenter sings over the end credits (more on that below.) JC's stripped-down, keyboard-driven scores are among the few pieces of synthetic film music that don't age poorly.

V. What's kind of dated about Big Trouble in Little China?

  1. Well, the hair. Obviously. But that's part of what makes it funny.

  2. The martial arts. They're very good for the '80s, make no mistake, and they've certainly aged better than anything offered by, say, Steven Segal. But the fact of the matter is that Jackie Chan and Yuen Wo Ping and their ilk — by showcasing martial arts using longer, full-body takes — have changed the landscape of action photography forever, leaving little room for pretenders. Carpenter shoots all his action with quick cuts, which is fine for gunplay but in martial arts feels like an attempt to disguise lesser skill. I'm sorry, but facts are facts.

  3. The wedding set that houses the climactic battle is fringed with neon — making it look less like an ancient Chinese underworld and more like a shopping-mall food court.

VI. Getting into the extras: So how about that DVD commentary?

Well, it's a laid-back and ultimately sort of mixed bag — featuring old friends (and, apparently, fellow hard-core libertarians) John Carpenter and Kurt Russell chatting about the movie and then, about midway through the track, chatting about everything but the damned movie, laughing good-naturedly all the while. Highlights include:

  1. Carpenter and Russell, both refreshingly plain-spoken men, talking about how they aspire to work hard and "keep it simple";

  2. Carpenter and Russell, 15 years after the film's release, pissing on the studio for (a) their wretched marketing and (b) one executive's insistence on an opening scene in which Egg refers to Jack Burton as courageous, which just cracks C&R up;

  3. Carpenter making a couple of jokes about "Captain Ron," deftly augmented by Russell tallying his personal string of '80s bombs;

  4. Russell, loosening up after what may or may not have been a few beers, pointing out the lack of any real sense of danger in the film, and quoting a review that accuses it of being "terminally hip";

  5. Repeated and sustained laughter at the complete and utter idiocy of Jack Burton;

  6. The duo joking about making a "political" movie in line with their decidedly un-PC views — to which Russell responds, "You think this film had trouble finding an audience...."

  7. A little too much discussion of C&R's kids, mutual friends, and crew members whose names we do not recognize;
  8. Carpenter riffing on the history of kung-fu movies — and Russell demonstrating his ignorance of same when he suggests (twice) that Big Trouble was perhaps an influence on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon;

  9. And, of course, a totally appropriate exchange near the end: JC: "Sorry we haven't talked more about the movie." KR: "We paid a lot more attention at the time [laughs] ... but the beer's been good, and the cigarettes haven't been too stale."

VII. What's on Disc II?

The remainder of the extras — plentiful, geeky and largely marvelous — are spread across three sewer/underworld-themed menus backed by generous snippets of John Carpenter underscore:

  • Menu 1 features three theatrical trailers, one of them in Spanish ("Rescate en el Barrio Chino!") — plus four 30-second TV spots, a one-minute pay-per-view trailer, and a 1:30 TV teaser. These are all very similar, playing up the buffoonery of Jack Burton and occasionally featuring the taglines, "They told him to go to hell ... and that's just where he's going" and/or "Jack Burton is coming to rescue your summer." Uh-huh.

  • Menu 2 takes us into a sewer tunnel, where we find the hard-core extras porn. Chief among these is the "Deleted Scenes" submenu, which features snipped and extended scenes from early workprints — often transfers from Betamax work tapes — with copious textual notes. What's unusual here is that you often have the option of watching several deleted scenes in one of two formats — a workprint cut or a videotape transfer — each with slightly different content, so that the eight deleted scenes here are really more like 12. (As a rule, he video transfers tend to be longer and more structured, while the workprints tend to feature alternate takes.) Among the previously unseen material (and I should warn you, I'll be dropping character names without explanation here):

    1. "Airport/Chinatown" is a longer cut of the opening airport action sequence and ensuing chase, featuring Miao Yin talking to a customs agent, Gracie Law discussing the Lords of Death ("They're assholes!"), and more of Egg Shen's tour-bus patter;

    2. "The Dragon of the Black Pool" is a longer cut of the first scene in Wang's restaurant as Burton calls his insurance agent about his missing truck, and features more discussion of the evil Lo Pan and more of hip maitre'd Eddie (who I must say really got the shaft at the hands of the editing knife). This is also one of a couple of deleted scenes in which Jack Burton goes off on un-PC, culture-clash-themed rants that are completely in keeping with his character (and hilariously delivered by K. Russell), but were most likely cut for fear of drawing the ire of sensitive viewers. In this case, turning away from the phone, KR rails in his John Wayne drawl: "With all due respect, Uncle Chu, this here is the United States of America in the 20th century, where we got laws against stealin' women and trucks and settin' off massive electrical charges in back alleys, y'know?"

    3. "The White Tiger" features more footage of our heroes discussing the slavery/prostitution ring, Kurt Russell mugging like a complete tool in his "Henry Swanson" salesman disguise, and an extended sequence in which the evil madam menaces a bound-and-gagged Miao Yin.

    4. "Gracie's Office" is probably the best of the cut footage — an extended and quite-funny version of the scene in which our heroes convene in Gracie's apartment/workspace after the Three Storms trash the White Tiger. There are two classic Burton moments here that I really wish had been left in the film: one where Grace offers him a protein drink and he hands it back to her saying, "Too much dried sea horse"; and the second of his culture-clash rants, in which he drawls, "Okay, I get the picture — White Tigers, Lords of Death, guys in funny suits throwing plastic explosives while poison arrows fall from the sky and the pillars of heaven shake, huh? Sure, okay, I see — Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu and a hundred howlin' monkey temples, and that's just for starters, right? Fine! I'm back! I'm ready, goddammit — let me at 'em! [pause, hands protein drink to Gracie] Or else get me another glass of this stuff and turn on the ballgame." (Again, it's Russell's delivery, not necessarily the words, that are funny; maybe you had to be there.)

    5. "Thunder's Tour" is a longer look at the inner workings of Lo Pan's front operation, the Wing Kong Exchange. It was trimmed for pacing, to which I reply, good;

    6. "Beneath Chinatown," also wisely trimmed for pacing, features an extended mythology lesson from Egg Shen (and some sort of shaky line readings from Victor Wong) as he leads the warriors to Lo Pan's lair — plus an off-camera roar from John Carpenter that stands in for the Sewer Demon;

    7. "Lava Sequence" features some angle-button action — allowing you to watch a movie cut of our heroes escaping from Lightning; storyboards of a longer, unfilmed version in which their escape is complicated by a lava flow; or both storyboards and movie simultaneously, in tiny stacked windows;

    8. And finally, "Six Demon Bag" is 11:47 of assorted cutscenes and extended cuts — including Jack and Wang wandering through Lo Pan's warehouse, Eddie serving food to Gracie and Margot as they discuss Burton, Lo Pan complaining about a faulty (Japanese) TV, our heroes dragged into holding cells (complete with bloopers), Jack and Wang sneaking up on Thunder in wheelchairs, Jack getting a genuinely heroic moment (!) in a fight scene, Gracie being made up for her wedding and pining for Jack, Egg dishing backstory on Lo Pan, an extended Lo Pan death scene, extended Thunder self-inflation, and a longer moment with our drug-enhanced heroes in an elevator.

    Also in the sewer-tunnel menu:

  • We find an "Extended Ending", in which Jack spies the Lords of Death in their Trans Am and rams them into the Bay, plus a brief alley farewell with Egg Shen;

  • Then there's 26 or so pages of "Production Notes" from the 1986 press kit. It's surprisingly well-written, featuring Carpenter talking about his love of such magic-and-martial-arts films as The Swordsmen of Mount Shock, plus a brief discussion of the original script, set in the Old West;

  • The disc's most horrifyingly dated extra can also be found here: a 3:18 Music Video featuring John Carpenter and his rock group, the Coupe De Villes, playing their crappy '80s pop single "Big Trouble in Little China." I'm on record as a fan of JC's film scores, make no mistake — but this pop song and video represent everything that is just plain wrong with mid-'80s MTV: mullet-esque hair, animated Xerox copies seemingly colored with Magic Marker, middle-aged white guys with stubble, and that synth-driven sound that makes so many '80s pop ditties sound like their own karaoke versions;

  • And then here we have a 7:30 "Featurette" — a "Video Press Pak" sporting behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, John Carpenter, Kim Cattrall, James Hong, Richard Edlund and Costume Designer April Ferry;

  • And finally, the sewer-tunnel menu rounds out with "Cast and Crew" filmographies for Hong, Carpenter, Russell, Dun, Cattrall, and Victor Wong — filmographies that, I'm sorry to report, include such horrors as Robo Vampire and the 3 Ninjas series.

    Can you believe that, after the above wealth of riches, there's a third extras menu? It's a pretty good one, too:

  • Under "Magazine Articles," we find reprints of stories from Cinematographer and Cinefex, illustrated with photos and mini-animations from the film;

  • Then there's a rambling, 13-minute "Richard Edlund Interview," which once again makes use of the Angle button: Angle 1 features Edlund at his desk with an inset "slide show" of behind-the-scenes stills; Angle 2 is a full-frame version of the slide show. As with Russell and Carpenter in their commentary, Edlund seems unprepared, and his monologue and the slide show diverge midway through the track. Topics covered: the glowing Lo Pan head, the surprisingly complex "Eyeball Monster," corpse manufacturing, the fact that Edlund's shop "sold everything off," the Sewer Dragon, "less is more," a strange digression to rip on one of David Fincher's Alien 3 creature ideas, on-set paranoia about offending the Asian-American audience, the tight budget, working in a world without wire removal, and a brief rant against today's workstation-bound F/X technicians and their lack of any sense of film history.

  • And finally: There's a generous "Still Gallery," featuring something like 230 photographs and sketches — broken into chapter headings labeled "The Cast," "John Carpenter," "Props, Weapons & Vehicles," "Make-Up & Creature Effects," "Set Design," "Behind the Scenes," and "Art Work."

    VIII. Summary of Findings

    If you're part of Big Trouble's sizable (and, I think, well-deserved) cult audience, this DVD edition will feel like a 15-years-overdue validation of your love. Go forth.

    — Alexandra DuPont

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