When “Big Trouble in Little China” was released in early 1986, it was a commercial and critical disaster. Critics panned the film as a B level “Raiders of the Lost Ark” rip-off while others simply thought it was boring. This was the last studio film John Carpenter would make until “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” in 1992.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the pyre of forgotten films. “Big Trouble in Little China” has developed a “cult audience.” This is no doubt the same audience that inspired “Highlander 2: The Quickening.” I mean, if “Big Trouble in Little China” had been a box office success back in 1986, would anyone still be talking about it? No. It’s not a very good movie. Whatever charms people have found in this film, they’re not visible on the screen. On the Internet? Certainly.
The concept is neat: Behind the stereotypical facade of Chinatown lurks an unseen world of torture chambers, fire breathing monsters and magical Chinese warlords. John Carpenter seems intoxicated with this idea and to be sure, the first twenty minutes or so of “Big Trouble in Little China” hum along with cool visuals and a likeable performance from Kurt Russell, doing a passable John Wayne impersonation.
He’s Jack Burton, a trucker from hell. When a friend(Dennis Dun) of his in Chinatown loses a bet to Burton, they drive to the airport to pick up the man’s girlfriend. She gets kidnapped by Chinatown thugs and any fun I was having ended right about there. The effects in “Big Trouble in Little China” are pretty impressive and spread all over the film, but someone should’ve worked harder on the screenplay. Okay, so we establish the premise that Jack will rescue the girl. But after that the movie just repeats itself over and over. Jack confronts a villain, kills him, utters a wisecrack, then moves onto the next level. It’s like a video game where it’s impossible to get from the beginning to the end with just one quarter and that’s no fun.
Is there anything good in the film? Yes, besides Russell’s performance, there’s Kim Cattrall as his feisty love interest. She’s good. I liked Russell’s philosophizing, especially in a scene where he calls the trucker’s union demanding action for his truck. I like the choreography of the martial arts scenes and to be fair, the movie does suggest some interesting magical possibilities.
But this is a boring film, so why the newfound audience? Well, there was another film that came out later in 1986, with the same premise as “Big Trouble in Little China,” entitled “The Golden Child,” starring Eddie Murphy. That film was panned too, but it was a big box office success. I don’t hear anyone praising “The Golden Child,” why not? It’s a better film than “Big Trouble in Little China,” and the special effects are better. It also plays fair with the audience. Maybe the fans of “Big Trouble in Little China” need to read better comic books.
SPECIAL FEATURES ^ Whatever you think of “Big Trouble in Little China,” the special edition DVD is bound to be a delight to any fan of John Carpenter, his long collaboration with Kurt Russell, and good DVD’s period. It’s a great piece of work.
The best part is the commentary by Carpenter and Russell. They take us back to the start of production, tracing the commercial failure of the film, and all of the figures behind the making of “Big Trouble in Little China.” It’s eerie, to somebody who was a kid back in 1986 to hear that time spoken of as ancient history, but Carpenter and Russell make you feel as if you’re on set.
The commentary opens with a funny story of how the tacked on beginning prologue was really the suggestion of Fox honcho Barry Diller. We learn the genesis of the “Big Trouble in Little China” script, from a prospective western, to a full tilt, kung fu, action fantasy.
My favorite part of the commentary though was when the two men just took time to rap about their own lives, their respective careers, and the business in general. It’s genuinely interesting; from Carpenter’s tales of studio politics, to Russell tracing the path of his own shaky early film career, of which the failure of “Big Trouble in Little China” was a setback. They both love this film and they’re puzzled as to why more people “don’t get it.”
Then comes the music video that most people probably have never seen; the “Big Trouble in Little China” theme song, performed by John Carpenter and his band, the coupe de villes, made up of fellow directors and longtime collaborators Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace. It’s a blast to watch and the song is pretty good. You can’t just watch this once.
Another important piece on the DVD is the commentary by special effects expert Richard Edlund, he of “Fright Night” and “Ghostbusters” fame. Edlund talks in detail of the challenges in taking a $1.8 million effects budget and making magic. There was little money left over we learn. Edlund carefully references the effects business in general, describing 1986 as the dark ages of film compared to the innovations of today.
The other star on the DVD would have to be the deleted scenes and alternate endings, though this part is a little underwhelming. The ending is interesting to watch, particularly to see the changed version of when Jack walks out of the restaurant at the end of the movie, and what happens to him. The rest of the stuff is largely the stuff of cut work-prints, hastily trimmed and poorly filmed on bad stock. Many of the monster shots though, are expanded greatly upon in the deleted scenes section.
Overall, the “Big Trouble in Little China” DVD is quite a contrast. The movie itself doesn’t cut it, but the DVD is very entertaining and fascinating. I think there’s a test. Did you think “Highlander 2: The Quickening” was good?