Fox // 1986 // 99 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // August 30th, 2010
"Well, you see, I'm not saying that I've been everywhere and I've done everything, but I do know it's a pretty amazing planet we live on here, and a man would have to be some kind of fool to think we're alone in this universe." -- Jack Burton
I hate to admit it, but I didn't like Big Trouble in Little China when I saw it in the theater -- in fact, I pretty much hated it. It being the days before the internet, the only thing I knew about the flick going into it was that it was directed by John Carpenter and starred Kurt Russell. I was expecting something along the lines of Escape from New York or The Thing. Big Trouble in Little China didn't just defy expectations, it spat on them. At the time, I was offended. I only came to love the movie when I saw it again on VHS -- and I mean love it. On a second viewing, I was able to appreciate it for what it was: arguably the most kickass action-comedy ever made, and one of the high points in Carpenter's entire body of work.
When the movie came out on DVD, I ditched my old videotape. Now that it's out on Blu-ray, my DVD is long gone, baby. When the fully interactive holodeck version is released in a few decades, you can bet I'll reach for the leather once again and send my Blu-ray to the purgatory of eBay. But in the meantime, let's take a gander at how Big Trouble in Little China fares in everyone's favorite high definition format.
Jack Burton (Kurt Russell, Escape from New York), loquacious driver of an 18-wheeler called The Pork Chop Express, is a reasonable guy, but he's about to experience some very unreasonable things. While trying to collect on a gambling debt from his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun, The Last Emperor), Burton gets caught up in a turf war between rival gangs in San Francisco's Chinatown. Matters are complicated when Wang's green-eyed Chinese fiancée is kidnapped by David Lo Pan (James Hong, Blade Runner), a sorcerer cursed with immortality. If Lo Pan can marry a Chinese girl with green eyes, he'll be released from his curse and can go off and rule the universe from beyond the grave (or check into a psycho ward -- whichever comes first). Burton and Wang team with meddling civil rights attorney Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall, Sex and the City) and eccentric tour bus driver/magician Egg Shen (Victor Wong, The Golden Child) to defeat Lo Pan's trio of elemental warriors, stop the wedding, and save Wang's fiancée. Martial arts action, magic potions, the Hells of Boiling Oil and Being Cut to Pieces, cheesy special effects, and an uninterrupted parade of memorable one-liners ensue.
John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China is a work of staggering cinematic genius. Okay, maybe not. It is a rollicking good time, though. Carpenter isn't generally associated with comedy, but Big Trouble in Little China is a genuinely funny movie (and arguably the most quotable piece of celluloid this side of The Big Lebowski). Most of its humor derives from the character of Jack Burton, a blustery, egocentric working man too dim to realize that he's Wang's bumbling sidekick and not vice-versa. There's a certain charm to how Burton fancies himself an action hero, and then actually musters the courage and fortitude to do an action hero's duty. Faced with a trio of mystical warriors who can control lightning, thunder, and rain, and David Lo Pan who is, at turns, a little old basket case in a wheelchair and a 10-foot tall road block that shoots lightning out of his mouth, Burton leaps into action with foolhardy bravado and an endless stream of sarcastic one-liners. Has Jack Burton paid his dues? Yes, sir, the check is in the mail. Kurt Russell's performance as Burton is perfection. He handles both the action and the rapid-fire dialogue with casual confidence and enormous skill. His action hero bona fides are unquestionable, and his comic timing is impeccable -- no one, and I mean no one, could've played the character better. Jack Burton is a huge part of the reason that Russell is my favorite action movie star of the 1980s. His turns as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, R.J. McReady in The Thing, and Burton in Big Trouble in Little China -- a diverse trio of performances that runs the gambit from stiff-lipped badassery, to pragmatic leadership in the face of paranoia and a hostile alien invader, to willy-nilly hilarity -- demonstrate more thespian range than the total combined output of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Steven Segal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Big Trouble in Little China began as a period wild west/martial arts mash-up screenplay written by Gary Goldman (Navy Seals) and David Z. Weinstein. At the behest of 20th Century Fox, W.D. Richter (Invasion of the Body Snatchers ) rewrote the story in a contemporary setting. When Carpenter was brought on board, he did a final rewrite that infused the story with its humor and strengthened the camaraderie between Jack and Wang. The resulting movie is part straight-up Western action movie, and part outrageous supernatural Asian martial arts flick. It's also one of Carpenter's most tightly paced pictures, thundering along on snappy turns of plot, exciting action sequences, and mountains of quickly-delivered dialogue (the jokes come so quickly and are delivered by the actors with such unflagging deadpan earnestness that it's impossible to catch them all on an initial viewing). Carpenter is well known (and often criticized) for wearing his admiration of director-producer Howard Hawks on his sleeve (The Thing is a remake of a Hawks production, and Assault on Precinct 13 is an urbanized riff on Hawks's Western classic, Rio Bravo). On the surface, Big Trouble in Little China appears to be a break from the Hawks form -- it's an often silly action-comedy featuring an incompetent hero (and competence defines masculinity in Hawks's work), scads of wire-fu, and a silly looking ape-beast with more teeth than a great white shark. In fact, though, Carpenter has said time and again in interviews time that he saw Big Trouble in Little China as an opportunity to pay homage to Hawks's screwball comedies. Though it's a much different beast than pure screwball, the movie's dizzying pace and absurd turns of plot perfectly ape the frenetic vibe of Hawks's comedies. And the often combative romantic tension between Jack Burton and Gracie Law is undoubtedly based on the one-upmanship between Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday.
On a first pass, it may be easy to dismiss Big Trouble in Little China as a lightweight Carpenter effort, a silly comedy with an absurd plot, a mullet-rocking hero, and dated optical special effects that were never all that impressive to begin with. But the movie is one of Carpenter's most artistically successful ventures (despite the fact that it was a miserable failure at the box office). In it, he throws everything he has at the screen: well choreographed action; some of the best dialogue he ever wrote; and homage to genres from kung fu, to Westerns, to screwball comedies. His attempt to do so much in a tight 99-minute timeframe could easily have resulted in a mongrel of a movie, a monumental mess of incoherent storytelling and campy excess. Instead, Big Trouble in Little China is a bona fide action movie and a genuinely funny comedy and an intelligent genre mash-up that never stoops to winking knowingly at the audience or patting itself on the back. Big Trouble in Little China deserves a place alongside The Thing as a showcase of John Carpenter in complete control of his directorial powers. It's a movie that gets better with each subsequent viewing because beneath its silly and immensely enjoyable veneer is a wonderland of technical precision and erudite love of cinema. It's a love letter from Carpenter to his fans, and to the movies that he grew up watching. It's magnificent. (Have I mentioned that I love Big Trouble in Little China? Because, boy howdy, do I.)
Big Trouble in Little China was originally released on DVD in the spring of 2001 in a spectacular two-disc Special Edition that had a fine transfer, DTS 5.1 surround audio, and was loaded with supplements. That edition quickly went out of print and was replaced by a single-disc release. Thankfully, this Blu-ray is a port of the Special Edition. Its transfer is utterly fantastic for a movie from the mid-'80s. Colors are brighter and more vivid than the DVD, detail is sharper, and depth of field is excellent. The image has a tight and attractive grain structure and very few signs of digital manipulation. Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween) shot the movie with their usual straight-forward visual precision and coherence. Their work looks better here than it ever has on home video (and probably even in theaters). The presentation is 1080p/AVC in the movie's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The default audio option is a DTS-HD Master Audio mix in 5.1 surround that is surprisingly clean, subtle, and full-bodied considering the age of the source. It's a noticeable step up, even from the DTS surround track on the 2001 DVD. In addition to the lossless DTS track, the disc offers a metric ton of dubs and subtitle options.
All of the extras from the Special Edition DVD are included on the Blu-ray. Carpenter and Russell deliver their most light-hearted and affable commentary track for their most light-hearted and affable film collaboration. Carpenter delivers a bit of background on the technical aspects of making the film, but most of the track consists of the director and actor reminiscing about the production and the people they worked with. It's great stuff. In addition to the commentary, the movie's score -- written by John Carpenter with help from composer Alan Howarth (Escape from New York) -- is presented in an isolated DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track.
There are eight deleted scenes. Primarily extension of scenes in the final cut of the movie, most are presented in a work print form in which the cuts are isolated as well as video versions in which they are integrated back into the scenes in the movie from which they were cut. An extended ending runs a little over three minutes and includes Burton using the Pork Chop Express to take down a pair of Chinese gangsters, as well as a final parting moment between Jack and Egg Shen.
A standard electronic press kit from the time of the movie's release is archived on the disc. It runs seven and a half minutes and includes interviews with Carpenter, Russell, and other members of the cast. An interview with visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund (Ghostbusters) is presented as a multi-angle featurette. You can opt to watch Edlund speak about the movie's effects from behind his cluttered desk while picture-in-picture stills of the effects he's discussing appear over his right shoulder, or you can simply view the still photographs of the effects with Edlund's interview providing voice-over narration.
In terms of promotional items housed on the BD, there's an insane music video for "Big Trouble in Little China," performed by Carpenter's band, the Coup Devilles. Besides the surreal experience of seeing Carpenter performing lead vocals for the tune, the video itself is as '80s-tastic as anything produced by Duran Duran or Wang Chung. There are two American trailers for the movie, a Spanish trailer, and six TV spots. Finally, there's a sizable gallery of production photos that plays as a 17-minute featurette.
Having been ported over from an earlier standard definition release, all of the extras are presented in 480p resolution. Most of them are full frame. Still, it's great to have all of the content from the superb Special Edition DVD tucked neatly onto a single BD-50. This is a dynamite package even if it doesn't offer any HD exclusives.
Here's to the Army and Navy and the battles they have won; here's to America's colors: the colors that never run.
May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.
This Blu-ray really shakes the pillars of heaven.
Review content copyright © 2010 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Russian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Thai)
* English (SDH)
* Russian (Commentary)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Isolated Score
* Alternate Ending
* Deleted Scenes
* Music Video
* Image Gallery
* TV Spots