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Big Trouble in Little China (1986) – Carpenter countdown #4

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Halloween would be by far his biggest financial success and two of my top four lost millions at the box office. All have received their reward in film heaven, also known as the home video market, though. This is the best of his 'greater ambition than time or budget allowed' films, an attempt to bring to US mainstream audiences a genre that was new to them.

Concept: An American trucker walks into a Hong Kong magical action comedy.

Trucker Kurt Russell drives a load into San Francisco's Chinatown, stays to gamble with friend Dennis Dun, and wins. Before he can collect his winnings, they have to go to the airport where Dun needs to meet his fiancée who is arriving from China. As she enters the arrivals lounge, she is snatched by members of the Lords of Death gang, and the two friends chase them into the middle of Chinatown… just as a gang fight is starting. Arriving from the sky into the middle of the mêlée come three mysterious figures with magical powers, 'Rain', 'Thunder' and 'Lightning'…

… and at this point, you either 'get it' and enjoy the ride – which involves a long dead Chinese villain's search for a woman with green eyes so he can live again – or you don't, and should give up now.

What's good: The going against expectations. In contrast to the vast majority of US films, the big name white American 'lead' is really the dumb sidekick and it's the Chinese immigrant 'sidekick' who's the hero. Much of the comedy is based around the way Kurt Russell's character thinks he's John Wayne but is really several cans short of a six-pack. At the start of one fight, he knocks himself out and in another, he fumbles his knife and, by the time he's got it back, Dun has knocked all their opponents out and the fight is over. When Russell finally manages to shoot someone after forgetting about the safety catch, he's asked, "First time you ever plugged somebody?" and replies, "Of course not!" but we know it is. Do the two white American stars get together at the end? No, he walks off without even the offered goodbye kiss.

The script. There are lines that have been sampled repeatedly ever since amongst some deliberately cheesy exposition: "You mean the David Lo Pan that's chairman of the National Orient Bank and owns the Wing Kong Import Export Trading Company but is so reclusive that no-one has even laid eyes on this guys in years?"

The performances. As in many of the best comedies, everyone plays this absolutely straight, no matter how silly it is. Russell spends half the climax with Kim Cattrall's lipstick smeared across his lips.

The music.

What's not so good: If you're not prepared to suspend disbelief, the whole thing.

One of the reasons Carpenter was asked to direct was that the studio knew he could work quickly. The production was rushed in order to beat The Golden Child into the cinemas and it shows. You can very clearly see when it shifts from real San Francisco to the sets. Do we believe some of those walls are solid stone? No. Are any of the monsters in any way credible? No. But the films it's based on had very patchy production values too.

Music: Yet another classic Carpenter score in his 'in collaboration with Alan Howarth' phase. It's more complicated than nearly all of the rest of his work and goes for synth and guitar rather than the usual 'American version of "Chinese" music' clichés.

Miscellany: The pre-title sequence was made because the studio didn't think the audience – like the lawyer questioning Victor Wong – would believe in the film's basic premise: magic is real.

One of the Lords of Death, Jeff Imada, would be Carpenter's stunt co-ordinator in virtually all of his later films.

Overall: Yet another disguised John Carpenter Western (the original version of the script had a cowboy riding into Chinatown in 19th Century San Francisco) this was years ahead of its time. An awful publicity campaign didn't help either and the film flopped badly on release. As the years have gone by, the video and DVD sales have grown and grown though, thanks in part to the way Hong Kong and Chinese stars, directors and films have reached the US mainstream.

Is this better than Halloween? Of course not. It is more fun though, and it's a sign of how ambitious it is that that no-one's attempted to remake it. The Hong Kong 'heroic gunplay' genre has been successfully transplanted, but the magical action comedy one has proved a lot harder for western mainstream audiences to get.

TL;DR Too much dried seahorse to be a commercial success, you either get it or you don't

Film: 5/5
DVD: 5/5

A very chatty commentary with Kurt Russell which sometimes gets back to what's on screen. Lots of deleted / extended scenes (apart from one joke, they were rightly deleted), a couple of featurettes and various other small stuff, including a hilariously bad music video featuring John Carpenter, Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace as The Coupe de Villes playing the end title music.

Double disc DVD, single disc version (but if you're going to like this film, only the better one will do), Scandinavian Blu-ray, US Blu-ray, and two listings for the full soundtrack (as with Prince, this is clearly one where people with copies are keeping them and there doesn't seem to be definite listing for the shorter soundtrack that was released at the time):

Written by Ian

June 27th, 2011 at 7:30 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

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