Big Trouble In Little China Review
John Carpenter was ever present during my pre-teen and teenage years, being the man behind a string of movies with which, to my eyes, he could do no wrong. Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, his remake of The Thing, The Fog, Escape from New York, They Live, and Big Trouble in Little China were all regular choices in the VHS at gatherings and parties of my friends during those hazy 80s’ days - and to segue nicely into this review, the band I play bass guitar in today has just written a song called Big Trouble in Little Livingston (which is more skateboards and punks rather than Chinese men and martial arts) in homage to the canon of Mr Carpenter.
Big Trouble in Little China, as is so often the case with these now fondly regarded cult movies, did not do good box office on its initial release in July 1986. The takings fell some way short of its production budget of $20 million and led to Carpenter turning his back on the studio system in the U.S. to return to independent film-making. Incidentally, 1986 was the summer of Top Gun, Ferris Bueller, The Karate Kid 2 and Aliens. Not much competition then! I have a special affinity with Big Trouble, as I shall refer to it from now on, as it was the first Carpenter movie I saw in a theatre and I loved it. It’s a rollicking, funny, fast paced, action filled fun-ride!
The movie concerns everyman truck driver Jack Burton, played gleefully by Carpenter regular Kurt Russell, helping his best friend, Wang Chi to track down and rescue his beautiful, green eyed fiancée who has been kidnapped by a Chinese gang. Burton and Wang (Dun) track his fiancée to Chinatown, San Francisco, where a spectacular fight erupts between two Chinese gangs. This fight is then interrupted by the arrival of the three storm gods Thunder, Rain and Lightning intent on destruction and in the act of escaping the melee in his truck, Burton runs over 2000 year old Emperor Lo Pan (James Hong), who temporarily blinds him and then, worse, he loses his truck!
Taking along a love interest for Burton in the shape of Gracie, a plucky lawyer played by Kim Cattrall, who also has green eyes, and a friend of Wang called Eddie (Donald Li) we are drawn into an underworld of sorcery, gravity-defying martial arts, supernatural monsters and ancient Chinese mythology. When the immortal Lo Pan captures Gracie intending to use her in a sacrifice requiring a girl with green eyes, whilst also marrying Wangs’ unwilling fiancée to make himself a corporeal body, it’s up to Jack and friends to save the girls, stop Lo Pan AND the three storm gods AND get back Jacks’ truck! Easy!
Brim full of fun action sequences, great stunts, martial arts fights, lovely slapstick comedy and the usual witty one liners from Kurt Russell, Big Trouble is a roller coaster of a 96 minute ride. With a synth-tastic score from Carpenter, production design from John J. Lloyd (Animal House), visual effects by Richard Edlund, an academy award winner for Star Wars and cinematography by frequent Carpenter collaborator Dean Cundey (Back to the Future I, II and III, Romancing the Stone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) it surely couldn’t fail. Unfortunately, in the summer of ‘86, it did indeed fail. Undoubtedly, at least partly, due to a lack of promotion by 20th Century Fox who didn’t know what to do with it and as mentioned, most likely, the busy summer movie schedule. It only grossed $11 million in theatres.
Interestingly, the film was originally conceived as a Western set in the 1880s, though still involving the Chinese magical aspect but another screenwriter was hired to bring it bang up to the present at the studios behest. Also, Big Trouble was hurriedly made and released for the summer season in ’86 to beat the Eddie Murphy starring The Golden Child to the box office, the two movies being vaguely similar. Murphy’s vehicle, released six months later, did slightly better business with some $79 million in box office receipts but I know which film I’d rather have in my truck.
I am so delighted to see ,Big Trouble in this kind of shape. Presented in 2.35:1 this Arrow Blu-ray gives us a lovely, faithful, filmic (i.e. nicely grainy) looking transfer of a film now almost thirty years old. By all accounts this is the same transfer which graced the 20th Century Fox release from 2009 but this is by no means a bad thing. A definite step up from the DVD editions, the film has never looked better. Sure, it’s mostly a brown-y sort of colour palette and soft looking in places but the colours are designed and quite deliberate while the softness is inherent in the photography and never a problem. The increase in detail is fantastic, colours are good (check out the green magic effects, the reds in Lo Pans’ lair and costume and Jacks’ lipstick) and blacks are strong but what has really impressed me is how well the visual effects have transferred. Often, when a title transfers to High Definition, visual effects can be ever more ‘see through’ and depending on your viewpoint, can lessen the viewing enjoyment. (I think it just adds to the charm myself) This is simply not a problem here with the effects looking as seamless and I’m sure just as ‘cool’ as I thought they did back in ’86. There are still tiny flecks and specks apparent here and there and as I mentioned it can look a touch soft at times but all in, I love how Big Trouble has transitioned to Blu.
There are 3 audio options available with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, a compressed 2.0 Stereo track and an isolated score track. Audiophiles should have no issues with this release as it’s a big, brash beast with clear dialogue, rattling gunfire and booming explosions. The isolated score is an interesting listening option and it shows the further talents and versatility of Mr Carpenter.
Many of the extras have been ported over from various previous editions of the film and this is no bad thing, but Arrow have also provided us with some all-new interviews which are extremely worthy. Previously available were the commentary track with Carpenter and Kurt Russell which as always with this pair is a blast; a vintage ‘making of’ which is the usual 7 minutes of 80s’ fluff; deleted scenes; an extended ending; an interview with Richard Edlund; TV spots; trailers; an image gallery; and the ever so slightly cringeworthy music video for ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ featuring John Carpenter and friends aspiring to be on MTV.
The deleted and extended scenes are all unusually interesting as there are some different performances to the ones eventually used, more good lines from Jack Burton and extra background on various characters and scenes from the film. It should be noted that the deleted and extended scenes are from either workprint versions of the movie or Betamax tape so they are not HD but their inclusion is most welcome nonetheless.
I tend to find TV spots and trailers rather pointless and I’m afraid that is still the case here, however there are, if you so desire, ten different versions of the same vintage promo reel from the film. There is even one in Spanish! They have consistently poor quality video and dodgy sound and indeed the only interest I found in them was noticing how the colours changed from trailer to trailer to TV spot to trailer. I could, conceivably, live without trailers as an extra for the rest of my life and never be upset but that’s just me.
Much more worthwhile inclusions are the new interviews with Carpenter, Russell, Dean Cundey, producer Larry J. Franco and stuntman Jeff Imada. Elightening, interesting and often times funny, these interviews, interspersed with clips from the film, act as a fantastic retrospective making-of feature and further serve to highlight what a botch job the studio made in trying to promote the film. Carpenter, Russell and Franco are particularly vocal about this issue and it’s great to see such frankness on display now that the passage of time has perhaps dulled the anger and bitterness felt in 1986. Unfortunately there are no subtitle options for the interview sequences and I noticed a disparity in volumes between the interview segments and the movie clips; the interview dialogue is at a good, clear level but the movie clips are painfully LOUD or alternately, the movie clips are at a good level but the interviews are extremely quiet. This could be my equipment or indeed my own hearing but I’ve never had this particular issue before.
Big Trouble in Little China on Blu-ray also comes with a booklet but this was not provided for review.
Arrow video have spoiled us again with an exceptional release of a cult favourite John Carpenter movie. With a great performance by Kurt Russell the movie zips along at a cracking pace. The HD transfer is natural and lovely looking, the audio is solid and the supplements are almost worthy of the asking price alone. I would not hesitate to recommend this to friends. Fantastic.