Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

"When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail." 
As much as I try, I just can't help myself. When I visit someone at their home I end up looking at the music, movies and books on their shelves and I end up making snap judgments. If I see a shelf full of CDs by Lady Gaga, The Scissor Sisters and Jessie J, then I don't predict a friendly match made in heaven. If the only books I can see are distributed by Mills & Boon then, again, we probably don't have a lot in common. These judgments are irrational, and often incorrect, but they pop into my mind. If I look at someone's DVD collection and they have Big Trouble In Little China, well, I'd hope that we will get along just fine. It's not just me thinking this way. Kurt Russell says on the DVD commentary track (which is absolutely brilliant, by the way) that you can always tell someone's sense of humour by whether they like this movie or not. So if you're reading this review and you've already seen the movie before and didn't like it . . . . . . . . . . . . . . well, we probably wouldn't fare very well if thrown together on a blind date.

Russell plays Jack Burton, a truck driver who gets himself in the middle of some very strange business indeed when he accompanies a friend (Wang Chi, played by Dennis Dun) to pick up the love of his life (Miao Yin, played by Suzee Pai) from the airport. Miao Yin is kidnapped and Jack and Wang head off in hot pursuit to rescue her from her kidnappers. That turns out to be quite tricky when the men discover that Miao has been specifically chosen by the mysterious and powerful David Lo Pan (James Hong), all because of her beautiful green eyes. While they consider their options, another green-eyed beauty arrives, investigative reporter Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), and helps formulate a plan that will, hopefully, lead to the rescue of Miao Yin as well as many other women being held against their will. It's just unlucky for them that they don't realise the mystical forces they will be coming up against.

I'm sure that most people who have heard of this film nowadays know a bit more than audiences who went to see it back in 1986. In fact, back when it was first released it was given very little promotion and those who stumbled upon it expecting a standard action comedy would have been understandably bemused.

Big Trouble In Little China is far from your standard action comedy. Instead, it takes great delight in taking the conventions of the action movie and turning them upside down. The most obvious, and most amusing, way in which this is done is with the hero, Jack Burton. He's not really a hero. Jack Burton goes through most of the movie either being ignorant of just what's going on or ineffective when needed most. Wang Chi is the man of action, but the film focuses on Burton, to great effect.

Russell is hilarious in the role, which is one of his best performances in a filmography chock full of great performances. Just listen to him talking on the phone after he loses his truck and tries to make an insurance claim - a lot of the dialogue is slightly faded as if it's just background noise, but almost every line is hilarious, mainly thanks to the delivery from Russell. Dennis Dun somehow keeps a straight face throughout and his character works well alongside Burton. What can I say about the Kim Cattrall of the 1980s that hasn't already been transcribed and kept forever in the legal documents that insist I stay at least two miles away from the woman? James Hong is great fun as David Lo Pan, Victor Wong adds to the entertainment as Egg Shen and Kate Burton, Suzee Pai and Donald Li all seem to enjoy themselves as they get caught up in the madness.

Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein wrote the script, but W. D. Richter is the man who extensively adapted the material into what audiences finally saw (it was originally envisioned as a western), and everyone involved in crafting the dialogue deserves praise for putting together something that makes people laugh so often, despite never going for easy gags. The movie is all about the characters, especially Burton, and that's where the humour comes from.

Despite the comedic nature of the material and the influences from Chinese culture and action movies of the past, this is still, undeniably, a John Carpenter film. The framing of each scene, the set designs, the music that he composed to accompany the visuals, the presence of Kurt Russell - this is classic Carpenter in every respect. The fact that the whole thing can be interpreted as an allegory for America and the way its foreign policy has affected so many countries over the years is just a bonus. I don't know if Carpenter ever intended that layer to be there, but there it is.

As cliched as it sounds, Big Trouble In Little China is a film that just seems to get better with age. I think if/when I rewatch it next year I may have to come back here to bump up the rating.



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