The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - Big Trouble in Little China (1986) | The Movie Waffler

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Blu-Ray Review - Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

John Carpenter's cult classic comes to Blu-Ray from Arrow Video.

Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton


The Movie:

Big Trouble in Little China was a major flop on release, a victim of timing, an unsympathetic executive and a next to non existent advertising campaign. Like John Carpenter's other great financial failure The Thing, time and the home cinema format has been kind, allowing an audience and cultdom to embrace this melange of dunderhead action heroics and chop-socky action. Released in a new blu-ray edition, a whole new generation can now experience the delights of Jack Burton’s (Russell) idiosyncratic approach to action heroism.
Two things stand out on watching Carpenter’s most unabashed popcorn entertainment anew. One is how sophisticated it is in the deconstruction of the action genre. Carpenter subverts the stylistic tropes and turns the leading man into a pompous blow hard. Make no mistake, Jack Burton is a massive tool in this film, a self inflated bell-end with an impenetrable confidence that is not matched by his actions. The Last Action Hero also tried a more complex meta narrative, undermining and celebrating the action movie at the same time. This was also a massive failure. Audiences of the eighties and nineties clearly liked their action served straight up and brutal. It took Bruce Willis in Die Hard to allow the hero a little vulnerability with a side order of sass. Carpenter also fused the relatively unknown charms of the fantasy martial arts movie to his action narrative. Some audiences may have been familiar with the more grounded work of Bruce Lee, but the fantasy elements of films like A Chinese Ghost Story and Mr Vampire would have been unknown to all but the most enthusiastic of cinematic aficionados of Asian Cinema back then. Released ten years later, this may have been a financial hit; in the eighties it never stood a chance.
The second thing that springs to mind is just how much fun it is. It comes in under two hours, moves with grace and efficiency and the action is compelling and cleanly edited. The comedy moments hit the mark and the story is sharp and unencumbered with convoluted plot contrivances. It’s the simple "save the girl from the baddies" scenario used a million times before (originally conceived as a straight Western, fact fans) but pulled off with wit and brio. Todays bloated blockbusters, in which everything has to be loaded with angst, guilt and darkness, could take a page from its play book. Today bloated MacGuffin’s abound, even "merchandising as movie" rubbish like Transformers have to have overly intricate plot devices that make little sense to anyone wanting to just watch shit blow up. Even that lantern jawed, American as Apple Pie do-gooder Superman had to be made over as an angst ridden, guilt stricken wuss who wasn’t above killing people to succeed. Joss Whedon’s Avengers may have had some of these flaws (a bloated running time, an overly complicated tesseract thingy) but it did understand the concept of fun. Audiences embraced it because it is light, explosive and didn’t feel the need to embrace the blackness. Hollywood is going through an age of making children's films aimed at adults, ignoring the very audience they should be attracting. I’m not sure the average nine year old is that interested in knob gags in Transformers or the emo angst of The Amazing Spider-Man.
Big Trouble in Little China may have been badly served by its distributor but it’s no out and out classic. It doesn’t quite have the delicate finesse of something like Raiders of the Lost Ark (few action films do; even Spielberg was unable to come close with the three sequels), more a companion piece to something like Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous. It certainly isn’t the tragedy of the original critical reception to The Thing, still Carpenters best movie, if not one of the best movies ever made, period.
Big trouble in Little China marks the last successful collaboration between the trio of Carpenter, Russell and cinematographer Dean Cundey. Cundey’s work is always a joy, his use of space and framing in the widescreen format is unsurpassed, the perfect match to Carpenter’s focused, sinewy direction. The hard work done here though is by Kurt Russell, clearly having a ball playing Burton, he completely understands his role. The swaggering John Wayne drawl, the supreme confidence, Russell knows he is a dickhead but he never plays him as one. He may be leading man as comic foil but you stay the right side of laughing with, rather than at, him. Jack acts how he thinks a hero should behave; the reality is his actions are more those of how a member of the audience would act if this was played out for real. Russell can do action cinema in his sleep, but he is also good at trading His Girl Friday banter with Kim Cattrall’s Gracie Law and Jerry Lewis routines when trying to procure a green eyed prostitute.
It is a performance that does tend to blow everyone else off the screen. Cattrall holds her own as Burton’s nominal squeeze and James Hong just about avoids falling into Fu Manchu stereotype as the comically villainous Lo Pan. Wang Chi (Dun), as the sidekick of Jack's imagination, may be a trifle dull but you feel that this is intentional. Jack Burton is the star of the movie in his own head, while in reality Tsui Hark is directing Wang Chi in a supernatural wushu epic. The martial arts in Carpenter’s film may be serviceable rather than outstanding and the effects on some of the creatures may look terribly dated to a modern audience, but when you are having this much fun who cares.
8/10
Extras:

Another joyful package of additional goodness from Arrow then. You get a dts 5.1 remastered audio as well as an isolated score option for fans of Carpenter & Howarth’s score. Also a chucklesome Carpenter and Russell commentary track (anyone who has listened to The Thing commentary will know this pair give good chatter). The picture quality is a marked improvement over the DVD release.
The main bulk of the extra is made up with short interviews (between 10-20 minutes) with Carpenter, Russell, Dean Cundey, the producer Larry Franco, stuntman Jeff Imada and visual effects guru Richard Edlund. The interviews may be revealing but they do suffer from being somewhat static in approach; ideally a feature length retrospective intercutting all the footage may have been less dry.
You also get an original featurette, produced at time of release, full of enthusiasm that clearly the studio did not feel. The usual trailers, TV spots, photo gallery as well as loads of additional footage and deleted scenes. Last but by no means least is possibly the most amazing extra ever to grace any blu-ray release, the music video for Big Trouble in Little China by The Coup de Villes; jaw dropping.
Films that have failed initially always seem to have the most interesting extras; what went wrong always seems more interesting than a load of self congratulatory back slapping. There is a forthright honesty here that shows audiences' tastes do not always dictate a films success. A great release all round.
8/10


Jason Abbey

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