Yesterday social media lit up with news of a proposed remake of John Carpenter’s 1986 martial-arts fantasy Big Trouble in Little China with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson stepping into the lead role originally played by Kurt Russell. The reaction to this news was varying degrees of apoplexy expressed through the medium of meme. So I thought I’d look back at the original film which I reviewed around it’s UK blu ray reissue back in 2013.
Viewed through the long lens of nostalgia, Carpenter’s career from the 70s through the 80s appears to be an unbroken succession of classic genre movies. Look closer and what appears to be a smooth vista reveals itself as rougher terrain. Carpenter’s first shot at a substantial budget, The Thing (1982) while now rightly regarded as a classic of the horror genre was actually a huge critical and commercial flop. The director found himself cast into the wilderness, Carpenter has stated that his next film, the Stephen King adaptation Christine (1983), was the only thing he was offered. Hired by producer Michael Douglas, Carpenter’s followed this with the sci-fi romance Starman (1984) which earned star Jeff Bridges on Oscar nomination and went some way towards rehabilitating the director’s reputation with the studios (Starman is my opinion a film unfairly neglected by the director’s fans). Buoyed by a moderate financial success, the director was then offered another shot at the big time in Big Trouble.
The film was a fantasy adventure that the studio clearly hoped would be in the mould of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unfortunately, as the extensive extras on Arrow’s HD reissue make clear, no one told Carpenter or star Kurt Russell this. Had it come up they might have realised that the executives who read and signed off on the screenplay had either not read it, or catastrophically missed the point (the latter seeming more likely). Originally written by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein as a traditional western, it was extensively reworked and brought into the present day (sorta) by W. D. Richter the writer of the excellent late seventies remake of Invasion of The Body Snatchers and Buckaroo Banzai. Richter’s script combined elements of western action films with influences from Asian martial arts movies. As a fan of kung fu flicks, Carpenter was excited by the possibilities.
The plot involves blowhard trucker Jack Burton (Russell) rolling into San Francisco and winning a substantial amount of money in a card game off friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dunn). Unable to lay his hands on the cash, Wang has Burton drive him to the airport to collect his fiancé, before he can return to his restaurant and hand over the readies.
Whilst at the airport, Burton spectacularly fails to pick up a comely civil rights lawyer (Cattrall) also waiting for an arrival from China. His doomed attempts to woo her are interrupted when the Lords of Death – a violent street gang – bust in, cause mayhem and kidnap Wang’s girlfriend. Jack and Wang give chase in Burton’s truck and with one left turn off a main street in Chinatown find themselves in a fantastical world of kung-fu masters, wizards and street fighting.
One of the first US movies to try and import the delirious madness and slapstick comedy of Eastern fantasy and present it to a Western audience. Big Trouble in Little China was a film ahead of its time clearly influenced by Hong Kong fantasy films like Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983) and Sammo Hung’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980). Of course a western audience meant a western hero, but the films most audacious move is that Jack Burton is actually a colossal idiot. He thinks he’s the hero but in fact he is Wang’s sidekick. Wang has the moves and knows what’s going on. Burton is forever zagging left when he should be zigging right, and constantly has his skin saved by his diminutive restauranteur pal. Russell is absolutely brilliant in the part, a gifted comedian trapped in a action star’s body, the actor really gets to show off his comic timing (if you want to see more of that, check out Overboard, one of the greatest screwball romantic comedies of the late eighties).
The problem is that while the film has a great central character, and a great set up, the story that should be the filling of this spring roll is sorely lacking in meat. Although Wang is clearly the hero, and Dennis Dunn is perfectly fine in the part, the character is pretty unmemorable. This also goes for Cattrall’s love interest, and a rag tag band of secondary characters they pick up along the way. After the movie ends, you will remember Russell, but you will struggle to recall anyone else.
Another issue is that while Carpenter is a great director of suspense, he shows very little skill for shooting martial arts. The fight scenes are staged more like classic western bar room brawls. There are skilled martial arts performers in the film, but in comparison to a good Hong Kong film of the period, the combat scenes leaden, over edited and lacking in their choreography.
Upon completion of the movie, the studio didn’t know what to do with it. Carpenter recalls studio head Barry Diller viewing the first cut and remarking that he didn’t get the Jack Burton character, “he doesn’t seem that good a what he does” he told the director. Of course this was the whole point. Barely marketed and saddled with an awful poster that presented the film as a star vehicle despite the fact the Russell was not a star at the time, the film flopped.
Later in the eighties it found an audience on VHS and is now regarded as a cult classic (featuring in Empire Magazines’ Top 500 Films of all Time list). It is certainly one of the first of its kind, and that is admirable, but that doesn’t make it any good. It’s one of the many, glossy, slightly oddball mainstream films of the eighties that has been granted classic status out of some strange nostalgia for stone washed jeans and Rick Springfield records more than any intrinsic worth.
Having said that, this is a film beloved of many, and if that includes you then this is a blu ray you will want. In line with all Arrow’s releases this year, the film looks great. Dean Cundey’s photography and the colourful production design pop off the screen. The old school special effects look in general actually quite special (especially some classic spooky blue lightening, something that was incredibly popular in eighties fantasy films). Carpenter’s score sounds good too, although it’s far from his best work and the end titles song by his band The Coupe DeVilles is truly horrible (although not as horrible as the MTV video that is included as an extra).
The extras are mostly ported off the previous R1 dvd version, but they are off high quality. The pick of the bunch is the commentary track featuring Carpenter and Russell, its clearly about 10 or 12 years old (Russell has just seen Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) but the two main are clearly at ease in each others company, talk frankly about problems with the studio, and at one point go off on a tangent catching up on each other’s families. Its a delight to listen to once they have warmed up, there is a lot of laughter, and some interesting insight into Russell’s matter of fact approach to acting.