Monday, August 13, 2012

Big Trouble in Little China

There are many reasons for a hero to embark upon a quasi-mystical quest, where he will be challenged and tested, where the arcane and the preternatural will confound his sense of reality, where danger lurks around every corner and his nemesis may take on unexpected forms.

Some heroes will embark upon such a quest for the love of a woman, or the lure of riches, or dreams of power, or because – in some strange way – it is their inescapable destiny.

Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) just wants his truck back.

How Jack came to mislay said truck is like this: he’s made a delivery to San Francisco’s Chinatown, he’s won a fuckton of money off his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) in a card game and … Okay, I’ve got to pause for a moment. Wang really shouldn’t be playing cards with Jack because he’s due to meet his fiancĂ©e Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) at the airport prior to the happy couple tying the knot; and Jack should really have let him off the debt, given the dude’s about complete the nuptials. Just sayin’.

Anyway, Jack insists on accompanying Wang to the airport to meet his inamorata, after which Jack damn well expects him to settle the debt. Then a bunch of toughs who look like they’ve just stepped out of a Duran Duran video turn up, kidnap Miao, and Jack and Wang take off in hot pursuit. Said pursuit leads them into an alleyway wherein two rival gangs cut loose with knifes, guns and chop-socky movies. And then things get bat-shit crazy when three warrior brothers who can fly and utilize the elements turn up, followed swiftly by Lo Pan (James Hong), “a ten foot tall road block” as Jack puts it, who can beam fire from his eyes and remains impervious to having a fucking big Freightliner truck driven over him. Jack and Wang flee the scene, setting up the man-rescues-heavy-goods-vehicle dynamic of the narrative (with, oh yeah, the fate of Wang’s girlfriend also in the balance).

Jack and Wang are joined in their quest by crusading attorney Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and wise old man Egg Shen (Victor Wong), who has his own score to settle with Lo Pan. Between the goofily engaging double-act that Russell and Dun provide, and the joie de vivre that Cattrall and Wong bring to their performances, the film’s entertainment factor is ramped up no end. Wong plays the wise, mystical seer like a live-action Yoda and delivers hilariously hokey lines as if he’s explaining the deepest secrets of the universe. Cattrall – about a million years before she was in ‘Sex in the City’ and looking damned hawt – imbues Gracie with the breathless comedic dynamism of, say, Rosalind Russell in ‘His Girl Friday’.

The script – credited to Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, adaptation by W.D. Richter – maintains an unflagging pace and keeps the pithy dialogue coming. John J. Lloyd’s production design is atmospheric and eye-catching. The action scenes are energetic and Carpenter has the good sense to play most of what happens for laughs. Including the monsters, which to be honest look a bit cheap and cheerful and belie the film’s $25million budget.

It’s tempting to wrap up this review by describing the whole shebang as walking a tightrope between utterly stupid and incredibly cool, but it doesn’t so much walk that particular tightrope as perform back-flips along it while blindfolded and juggling throwing stars. It’s the most bonkers piece of work on John Carpenter’s CV, the least easily classifiable piece work by a director whose output generally falls into the categories ‘horror film’ or ‘siege movie’, and sometimes both. To be honest with you, I don’t know what the hell I’d classify ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ as … and that’s probably why I have so much fun with it.


Samuel Wilson said...

It's a glorious film and James Hong deserves his share of the credit for his fussy, cranky villain -- a career best? This is one of the films I saw multiple times in the theaters back when that was more affordable and I used to be able to quote chunks of dialogue with pleasure on any pretext. Always wanted a sequel, too, with "The Pork Chop Express" the perfect title no matter what the story was. Thanks for sharing.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Carpenter himself says that BTILC is a 'chinese ghost story' which it is...with elements of a kung fu film thrown in for good measure. And a fantasy film. And a monster film...hell, he really made a mish mash of a film, worked like magic if you ask me. I can't get enough of this one!

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