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Case Number 01147

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Big Trouble In Little China

Fox // 1986 // 100 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // May 28th, 2001

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our review of Big Trouble In Little China (Blu-Ray), published August 30th, 2010, is also available.

The Charge

Just remember what ol' Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big old storm right in the eye and says, "Give me your best shot. I can take it."

Opening Statement

Fox does the honors and removes another "where is it on DVD?" title from their vaults and puts in our hands this Special Edition of John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China. Boasting strong video, a DTS soundtrack and a boatload of extras, this release is well worth the cash for devotees of this cult classic.

Facts of the Case

Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell—The Thing, Escape From New York) is a hard living, hard drinking, hard talking son-of-a-bitch who thinks he is not only God's gift to the female sex, but also a pretty tough hombre. As the man behind the wheel of the "Pork Chop Express," Burton has seen most of what this great country of ours has to offer, and he now finds himself in San Francisco dropping off his payload. Finding the time for an all-night game of dominoes on the wharfs of the City by the Bay, Burton ends up winning big. Unfortunately, the man who owes Jack his money can't pay right at that moment. Not being the kind of man who lets friendship stand in the way of money, Burton escorts Wang Chi (Dennis Dun—Year of the Dragon, The Last Emperor) to the airport where he is to meet his beautiful, green eyed bride-to-be from China, and from there the plan is to go back to the city where Burton will be paid. Things are looking good for Jack when he also meets a tough talking girl named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall—Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country, Porky's). Gracie is also at the airport to pick up a girl from China, but this hardly stops Burton from turning on his special "charm." Needless to say, things do not go as planned. Chi's fiancée is kidnapped by a band of local hoodlums after they make a failed attempt to kidnap the girl Gracie had come to meet. Leaping into action, Burton and Chi make a mad rush into the streets of Chinatown where the doo-doo starts to hit the fan pretty quickly and in unbelievable ways. In a back alley, Burton witnesses the power of the walking ghost, Lo Pan (Blade Runner, Tank Girl), and his elemental minions. To say much more would ruin the surprises of the movie and I won't do that. All I will say is that one never knows where a hero will come from with the odds stacked against you and in the end, you never can tell what will happen when you stumble into Big Trouble in Little China.

The Evidence

Creatively speaking, the 1980s was a great decade for John Howard Carpenter. Things started out pretty well with one of his most underrated films, The Fog (just a quick note, it was announced recently that MGM is working on a special edition of this movie due sometime in 2002). Next up was the director's second collaboration with actor Kurt Russell. This film was, of course, the classic Escape From New York (another quick note, MGM has pulled the current movie-only version of the disc and is preparing a special edition, also due in 2002). From the mean streets of Manhattan to frozen Antarctica, Carpenter and Russell next gave the world their ode to nihilism in the bleak and disturbing The Thing. Following The Thing, Carpenter directed his sunniest movie to date, Starman, which, as he admits, was an apology to the world for the darkness of The Thing. Riding high on this Oscar nominated film, Carpenter once more turned to his friend Kurt Russell and the two joined forces on Big Trouble in Little China. This giddy tribute to Hong Kong movies, slap stick romances, John Wayne shoot-em ups and the conventions of the modern day American action film was a cinematic stew that served as an attack on the senses and the sensibilities of filmgoers everywhere.

For a movie that was so different, it should surprise no one that the movie tanked at the box office and was generally reviled by the critical press. Bear in mind that this movie was released in 1986, quite a while before most of America learned who Jackie Chan was or what in the world The Matrix meant. This was a film where the rules were thrown out the window and a whole style of filmmaking rarely seen by Western audiences was on full display. Still, to be honest, looking at Big Trouble in Little China, it is clear that it does not possess the technical sophistication of a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , but what it lacks in computer aided grace it more than makes up in heart. Indeed, this movie works because of its roughness and its willingness to do away with the rules. There is an innocent charm not often found in films of John Carpenter at work here, and this charm combined with a sense of mystery and wonder that helps keep the film fresh some 15 years later.

Carpenter obviously had an understanding and a passion for the genre he was exploring, and this energy is evident in every bright and kinetic frame. Aided in no small part by the contributions of cinematographer Dean Cundey (Apollo 13, Jurassic Park) and production designer John J. Lloyd, it's clear Big Trouble in Little China is a cinematic love letter of sorts and who better to send it than an artist at the height of his powers?

The number one thing the film had going for it was a quirky sense of humor that takes the conventions of the typical Hollywood action epic and twists them on their ear. The screenplay of Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein was originally conceived and written as a western, but it was in the adaptation of the script by writer/director W.D. Richter (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) that the movie really took flight. Richter added a subversive perspective that Carpenter plugged into and ran with. Instead of the Old West, the setting was transposed to the mysterious Chinatown of San Francisco. Gone was the cowboy and in his place is the modern day loner, truck driver Jack Burton. Instead of being the self-assured man of action who always makes the right move, Burton is a hero without a clue. Loud, obnoxious, bull headed and petty, in Russell's hands Burton is anything but your stereotypical leading man. To watch Russell play so far against type is to watch an actor who trusts his director enought to work without a net. As the movie moves forward and as things get stranger, it becomes clear that Russell's Burton is not the star, but rather it is the supposed sidekick, Wang Chi, ably portrayed by Dennis Dun, who is the real man of action. Knowing exactly what to do and when to call for help, Chi leaves Burton on the sidelines, left to smirk and bark out definitive statements like he is the one in charge. It is the movie's ability to allow Jack Burton to always think he is the one doing the rescuing that is its greatest joke…and probably one of the biggest reasons for the film's failure with audiences at the time.

For a movie that melds together so many different genres, it makes sense that there are different styles being played by the actors. If Russell is the film's stone-jawed John Wayne type, then Dennis Dun has the earnest nature he needs down pat. To spice things up, Carpenter throws into the mix Kim Cattrall as Gracie Law. Cattrall gives a performance that appears as if it stepped off the soundstage of some 1940s screwball comedy. More Rosalind Russell then screaming damsel in distress, Cattrall delivers the goods. Her work adds zip and sexuality to the proceedings that the movie is not afraid to take advantage of. In fact, another one of the great jokes of the film is allowing Law to become attracted to Burton even though she sees what a moron he truly is. It's a typical film convention that Richter and Carpenter throw on its ear once more when, at the end of the film, Burton refuses to kiss Law as he is leaving town, choosing instead the comfort of his truck.

Veteran character actor James Hong turns up as David Lo Pan, the walking ghost who needs the bride with the green eyes to become human once more. On the commentary track, Russell and Carpenter note that more than anyone other than the director himself, Hong understood the material and its Asian filmmaking roots. It is this understanding that comes through in a performance that combines pure malevolence with an impish sort of arrogance. Like most great screen villains, Lo Pan has very clear goals that probably don't appear evil to his character. He simply wants to become human and rule the planet. The fact that someone has to die for this to occur is but a small detail that should hardly deter him from the endgame. In a film full of colorful sequences and characters, Hong's work is one of the movies highlights.

All in all it's a great ensemble that is rounded out by other wonderful performances by Victor Wong (Tremors) as the wise mystic Egg Shen; Kate Burton (The Ice Storm) as Margo, the intrepid reporter way over her head; and Donald Li (One Crazy Summer) as the sidekick's sidekick, Eddie Lee.

On to the technical side of things. Fox treats us to a beautiful transfer that maintains Carpenter's favored shooting aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It is of course given an anamorphic transfer, which blows away all previous home video incarnations. The first thing I was struck by was how very vibrant the colors appeared. Saturation is dead on the money with everything popping off of the screen. Black levels are also outstanding, and they possess a great deal of depth as well as detail. The only problems I could detect were the occasional nick or scratch, but it appears that the print was cleaned up for this release and those imperfections are few and far between. The presentation also shows the finest amount of film grain, but this is something that is basically inherent to the source material and is hardly cause for alarm. Overall I can't imagine Big Trouble in Little China looking any better, and hats off to Fox for their fine work.

There are several sound options available, which basically sound the same. Even though on the packaging the Dolby Surround is listed as 5.1, it's really 4.1. The other choice worth thinking about is a DTS 5.1 audio track. Realistically both are 4.1 but in the case of the DTS the same surround channel has been encoded as right and left, thus making it 5.1. Given my choice and if you have the capability with your receiver I would go for the DTS. As is usually the case, DTS sounds both tighter and richer to my ear. That said, the overall presentation is solid on both tracks and neither disappoint. Dialogue is well mixed, music is never overpowering, and special effects are heard to good effect. No one is going to confuse this sound design with something like The Haunting, but it is certainly representative of the film and the period. It's not a reference mix but it is certainly quite good, and once more the film has never been treated better. [Editor's Note: Harold says all the tracks sound the same, but he didn't say anything about the matrixed 2.0 surround. It is far inferior to the digital tracks. It sounds very hollow and flat next to the rich remix.]

I find it difficult in this age of Super Duper Special Editions to look at any release as definitive, but in the case of Big Trouble in Little China, I can't imagine a future version being any more complete. As produced by David Prior, who was also the brain behind Fox's Fight Club and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, things start off with some really clever and appropriate menus that are pretty easy to navigate and fun to look at. The first goodie worth talking about is the audio commentary with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. This is the third time the two have sat down and recorded one of these things together, and the affection between the two for each other is clear. It is a free wheeling discussion that goes in depth about the film and about their lives. Both participants are interesting and this track is mandatory listening to fans of their work and of the film.

Moving on to disc two, the first thing that bears watching is the selection of deleted scenes, which also includes an extended ending for the film. At 100 minutes, Big Trouble in Little China moves like a bat out of hell and it's pretty obvious why these trims were made. Quality of the cut footage is average to poor, but the scenes are well worth watching and give an even fuller scope to the finished project.

There is a production featurette called "The Making of Big Trouble in Little China" that dates back to the movie's original release. While it's nice to have, it is pretty disappointing and it serves as the package's only weak spot. Much more informative is a video interview with special effects master Richard Edlund. His interview is broken into two segments, and they also include deleted footage. They are both multi-angle presentations that let Edlund talk about the sequences while a little box onscreen shows the footage being discussed. This feature also allows the viewer to switch from the interview to a full screen presentation of the footage. This is a great addition and one that I hope we see utilized more in the future.

Prior has also included two articles from the magazines Cinefex and American Cinematographer. These are both easy to navigate and are interactive with photos and video as well. Another great feature. An extensive still gallery, which features production and publicity photos, is still another great supplement. The disc includes two theatrical trailers, television spots and, the scariest thing on the entire set, the music video. The band is called the Coupe De Villes and the band members are John Carpenter, Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace. Watching it, I was reminded of how glad I am that the '80s are over. A truly frightening experience, but a fitting close to this excellent two-disc set.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

If you like your action movies by the numbers or starring Steven Seagal, then chances are Big Trouble in Little China will prove to be a wee bit esoteric for your liking. Also if you enter this world of John Carpenter expecting something along the lines of The Thing or Vampires, then Jack Burton and company will probably let you down as well. That said, if you are looking for a bright, funny, exciting and inventive movie stew, Big Trouble in Little China is just what the doctor ordered.

Closing Statement

Fans of this movie have been waiting a long time for this baby to roll around, and I'm happy to report that Fox has not dropped the ball. This is as good a package as you are likely to find for any movie out on the market.

Around here at the DVD Verdict we try to answer the question: is this particular disc a rental or a keeper? Well, I'm pretty sure no one is surprised when I say this is a must buy all the way. I went into reviewing this disc thinking that Warner's edition of Superman was the best DVD so far of 2001, but after living with Big Trouble in Little China for a little over a week now, I am convinced that Big Blue is now in second place. This is the disc to put at the top of the pile when you want to show friends why you love DVD so much. Everything you ever wanted to know about this movie is here and it's all a lot of fun.

The Verdict

Can we all say acquitted? All charges are dismissed and this movie, its crew and producers are thanked for a great time on the couch. Here is also hoping that John Carpenter's upcoming Ghosts of Mars is a return to greatness for this very talented director. Fox is commended by the court for their outstanding work on one of best cult movies ever made.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 92
Audio: 88
Extras: 100
Acting: 95
Story: 93
Judgment: 96

Special Commendations

• Golden Gavel 2001 Winner: #8

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 4.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• English
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Action
• Comedy

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary with Director John Carpenter and Actor Kurt Russell
• Deleted Scenes
• Featurette
• Interview with Special Effects Artist Richard Edlund
• Still Gallery
• Production Notes
• Magazine Articles
• Music Video
• Theatrical Trailers
• Television Spots


• IMDb

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