Monday, July 19, 2010

Film Review: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986, John Carpenter)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 99 minutes.
Tag-line: "Adventure doesn't come any bigger!"
Notable Cast or Crew: Written by Gary Goldman (TOTAL RECALL, NAVY SEALS) & David Z. Weinstein, and transformed and adapted by W.D. Richter (HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS '78). Starring Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun (YEAR OF THE DRAGON, THE LAST EMPEROR), James Hong (BLADE RUNNER, CHINATOWN), Victor Wong (TREMORS, 3 NINJAS), Kate Burton (THE ICE STORM, UNFAITHFUL), Donald Li (ONE CRAZY SUMMER, MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN), Carter Wong (HARDCASE AND FIST, COUNTDOWN TO KUNG FU), Peter Kwong (GLEAMING THE CUBE, BRAIN SMASHER- A LOVE STORY), James Pax (INVASION U.S.A., KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS), Al Leong (the ubiquitous henchman from everything). Cinematography by Dean Cundey (THE THING, BACK TO THE FUTURE, JURASSIC PARK, D.C. CAB).
Best one-liner: "This is gonna take crackerjack timing, Wang."

"Son of a bitch must pay!" John Carpenter was on a serious hot streak in the 1980's- his output (THE THING, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THEY LIVE, et al.), in my opinion, stands tall alongside a decade's worth of work from any comparable director. I've no idea why, but very few post-1970 filmmakers saw it fit to take up the mantle of Howard Hawks- delivering action-packed, immaculately constructed character-driven films for men's men (and where the ladies pulled no punches, either)... but John Carpenter was one of 'em (Walter Hill being a notable other), and, consequently, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a goddamned blast. It's all about sliding down a fireman's pole and ending up in the ancient Chinese underworld:

It's about that brief, ecstatic feeling of invulnerability after swigging the contents of the six-demon bag:

It's about roaring down the highway in the Freightliner called the Pork Chop Express, delivering lovably pompous CB radio monologues to no one in particular, and chomping from a ham sammy that’s bigger’n yer head.

It's about THIS:

But, in the end, it's mostly about this:

In short, it’s about the exhilaration of being ALIVE in a world of unfathomable mystery. “Have ya paid your dues, Jack?– Yessir, the check is in the mail.” Unfortunately, the studio didn't know how to market this kooky hodgepodge of kung fu, sorcery, cockiness, and rapid-fire banter, and it resulted in commercial failure (and Carpenter wishing to abandon the world of high pressure and even higher budgets). Lucky for us all, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA received a new lease on life on videocassette, and, for the initiated, remains a beloved cult hit.

It succeeds for me because it never feels the need to go "wink and nod," to establish itself as 'above' its material. Clearly Carpy loves this shit, full-tilt: kung fu, Hawks, John Wayne, all of it. And in transmitting the spirit of films past, he never loses the boyish excitement which drew him to them in the first place. Who has any use for a kung fu 'spoof' in a world where BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA exists? The fun Carpenter is having is genuine, and it is infectious. I may even go as far as to say that it may be the greatest "beer, pizza, and friends" film ever made. [Carpenter even goes further in showing the hell of a time he's having by having the Coupe de Villes (a band comprised of he and his filmmaking buddies Tommy Lee Wallace and Nick Castle) jam over the end credits with the balls-to-the-wall musical brilliance that is "Big Trouble (in Little China)," which may very well be the subject of a forthcoming music review.]

With a sleek, sharp, and funny script courtesy of eclectic screenwriting maestro W.D. Richter (adapted and updated from the screenplay to a Western by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein) and lighthearted, old Hollywood-style direction from Carpy, Kurt Russell is free to step in and create a larger-than-life character (Jack Burton) who’s as ineffectual as he is badass; as impotent as he is lovable.

He’s John Wayne for an era where posturing and pretense mean everything, but when it comes to ACTION, – um, uh...what? Watch Russell as his faux-macho persona comes to grips with his initial inability to work a gun- and the subtle glimmer of panic in his eyes as he blasts his first henchman.

He's a runaway train of swagger, guts, and bluster who generally serves as a massive distraction while his "sidekick" (Dennis Dun's Wang Chi) actually gets shit done. Many have posited that though he's the main character, Jack Burton is actually Wang Chi's sidekick, which isn't a stretch of the imagination by any means. But you never tire of Russell's manically youthful cackle, or his proclivity toward moaning "Awwwwww, CHRIST!"

I love this movie. I love 80’s lightning effects.

I love the fact that the millennia-old Lo Pan’s demonic lair is totally decked out in neon and escalators.

I love the walleyed, hunchback'd, limpin', Chewbacca-lookin' creature who kidnaps Kim Cattrall.

I love the gangs who have apparently escaped from the set of a Golan-Globus flick.

I love the likably off-kilter performance of Victor Wong, who maintains dignity and authority in the midst of laser beams, slapstick, and rubbery varmints.

I love Jack Burton's ill-conceived act of subterfuge which allows us one final glimpse of Russell's charlatan, "Rudy Russo" from USED CARS.

I love the inventive, pre-CGI monsters

and the man who gets so pissed off, he literally explodes.

But ultimately, it’s the bonds of friendship, tempered by experience (“We really shook the pillars of heaven, didn’t we, Wang?”), that are the measure of the human experience.

I know Hawks would be proud.

-Sean Gill

6. BLIND FURY (1989, Philip Noyce)
7. HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951, John Farrow)
8. HIGH SCHOOL U.S.A. (1983, Rod Amateau)
9. DR. JEKYLL AND MS. HYDE (1995, David Price)
11. 1990: BRONX WARRIORS (1982, Enzo G. Castellari)
12. FALLING DOWN (1993, Joel Schumacher)
13. TOURIST TRAP (1979, David Schmoeller)
14. THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973, Richard Lester)
15. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986, John Carpenter)
16. ...


J.D. said...

Love this film! Hands down it is my fave Carpenter film of all-time. While I will concede that THE THING is prolly his masterpiece in terms of craft, etc. BIG TROUBLE is the film of his that I watch the most. Never get tired of it and can quote it endlessly.

"And if we're not back by dawn, call the President."

It's not just the dialogue but it's the way the actors say it as the above quote illustrates. The way Russell says that - with complete swagger and confidence - makes me laugh every damn time.

Or the exchange between him and Lo Pan were doesn't believe that this little old guy is really an all-powerful ghost. Classic stuff. And, the film also delivers on the action sequences. So, you've got the best of both worlds. It goes without saying that they just don't make gems like this anymore.

And speaking of W.D. Richter, I'd love to read yer thoughts on THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI. Talk about your instant cult films!

Sean Gill said...

It is so hard to choose a favorite Carpenter, but THE THING, THEY LIVE, and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA always float around the top of my list. Truly a perfect fusion of dialogue, direction, and performers– I could easily see this movie falling flat on its face if even just Russell were replaced with an actor who didn't understand the material.

I am a BUCKAROO BANZAI fan, as well, and I've been meaning to do a write-up!

J.D. said...

Those Carpy films you cited are also my frequent faves along with ESCAPE FROM NY - Russell plays such a badass in that one!

And I've been finding myself really watching THE FOG a lot more lately, rediscovering this slightly underappreciated film of his.

Sean Gill said...

EFNY and THE FOG (and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS) are probably my next tier. THE FOG just keeps getting better and better for me- and I think the soundtrack might even be Carpenter's best- complex, scary, and setting the perfect mood for M.R. James-style devilry.

GuyR said...

It IS really hard to decide which Carpenter is the best.
As JD wrote, The Thing is certainly his (and Bottin's) masterpiece.
But the favorite film sure varies from person to person.
For me, I'd say They Live, although Assault on Precinct 13 really makes my brain shiver. And Big Trouble is always a joy to watch.

What a director!

Anonymous said...

Great review, Sean. Can't add much here.

I like that Carpenter essentially makes the goofy sidekick the focus. Really, the competent one here is Dennis Dun (who'd appear a year later in PRINCE OF DARKNESS... and then disappear), in a conventional narrative he'd probably be the hero and the focus. This isn't to say the film is about Burton; but Carpenter does this thing where he turns the focus onto the sidekick. It's a nice touch.

John Carpenter still doesn't get enough credit for his work. And I don't mean that people don't like his films. I mean that he's still very underrated as a director. I have no idea why people continue - to this day - to write this guy off. I've been in many a conversation even with people who've liked his films who underrate Carpenter's talents. It's like if a guy never directed an Oscar-nominated drama borefest he's incompetent.

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for the kind words! It is a shame that Dennis Dun's career didn't really pick up post-Carpy, but a friend told me that he has a meaty recurring role on the already defunct Mann/Milch cable series, LUCK.

Carpy really does deserve more attention from the critical establishment. He's inspired so many filmmakers at this point, perhaps he'll one day be regarded as a Howard Hawks or a Nicholas Ray or a Sam Fuller, just as their genre-heavy careers were lauded and reevaluated by scholars in the 1960s and 70s and 80s while they were in the twilight of their careers.

Anonymous said...

It's probably not hard to figure out what happened to Dun. In Hollywood, Asians usually get shoehorned into a few stereotypical roles. You know: nerdy types, martial arts masters, guys with no personalities. I liked that moment in BIG TROUBLE when Jack asks: "Any of them savvy English?" and the Chang Sing (played by James Lew) retorts: "Hey, man, who is this guy?"

There are a lot of recognizable guys in this film though:

- Victor Wong
- James Hong
- James Lew (who also did the fight choreography)
- Gerald Okamura
- and, of course, the greatest token Asian bad guy himself, Al motherfucking Leong

The sad thing is, as recognizable as these guys are (especially Al, who's that one guy everyone recognizes but never knows the name of), none of them are huge stars. Hell, three of them are more stuntmen and henchmen types. Another interesting thing is that Dennis Dun might actually be the least recognizable guy among them. He does a fine job though.

Anonymous said...

Actually, scratch that. Al Leong's not the "greatest token Asian bad guy". He's just the greatest henchman, period. Without guys like Al, our beloved action heroes would have nobody to kill. And Al's been killed by just about everybody. Hell, same goes for Lew and Okamura.

Sean Gill said...

Man, I love all those guys. Al Leong is truly a legend. I was reading a while back about a film he wrote and directed and starred in called DADDY TELL ME A STORY, but then I heard that the film had been completely lost. I hope that's not the case.

Also, it's unfortunate that he hasn't really appeared in much throughout the last decade, but it truly warmed my heart to see him show up (albeit very briefly) on DEADWOOD a few years back.