“Of course the Chinese mix everything up. Look at what they have to work with. Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoist alchemy and sorcery... We take what we want and leave the rest – just like your salad bar.”
Disreputable guru Egg Shen (Victor Wong) is talking about Chinese mysticism, but he could just as well be referring to John Carpenter’s 1986 kung fu crossover. Sticking a Hollywood action flick in the blender with a big dollop of Hong Kong cinema, Big Trouble In Little China is an entertaining fusion of East and West. Needless to say, it bombed.
Part of the problem was that Fox just didn’t know how to market it. They wanted Indiana Jones with an Asian vibe, something to counter Paramount’s The Golden Child, which was going into production around the same time with Eddie Murphy in the lead.
What Carpenter delivered instead was a subversive, screwball buddy comedy that riffed on Howard Hawks movies while looking Eastwards to martial arts fantasies like Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain.
Kurt Russell stars as trucker Jack Burton – swept into a maelstrom of mystical martial arts in San Francisco’s Chinatown when the green-eyed fiancée of his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is kidnapped.
Wearing a muscle vest and an oafish grin, Jack is a big dumb meathead – the kind of guy who optimistically shoots a gun at a floating monster with a ‘Hey, you never know...’ shrug; or unwittingly ends up wearing lipstick after a snog with his lady (a young and very funny Kim Cattrall).
In an age when action men were mirthless killing machines like Arnie and Sly, Russell’s likeable lunk turned conventions on their head. He’s not even the real hero of the movie – although he’s too dumb to realise it. It’s Wang who gets the girl and saves the day.
Together, they’re a cross-cultural Butch and Sundance – but no one’s told Jack he’s sharing the billing. “Look at this guy,” chuckles Russell about his character on the chat track he shares with Carpenter. “He hasn’t got a clue what’s going on.” Jack wasn’t the only one. Fox weren’t in on the joke either. Carpenter recalls one exec demanding they insert a nonsense prologue in which the numbnuts hero is praised as “a man of courage”.
The film tested strong in previews, yet sections of the Asian-American community accused the white filmmakers of using creaky racist stereotypes – not least chief villain Lo Pan (James Hong), a Fu Manchu baddie with a head that lights up like a Roman candle.
In retrospect, it’s an asinine complaint: “Right, because we all know Asians shouldn’t have light coming out of their mouths,” scoffs Russell.
Made after Rambo: First Blood Part II, which featured a lone American gunning down an army of Asian extras, Big Trouble was actually pretty progressive – respectful to Hong Kong cinema even while pilfering from it. Carpenter even went the extra mile and flew in Chinese martial artists to play elemental baddies Thunder, Lightning and Rain (Carter Wong, James Pax and Peter Kwong), who storm the screen like Mortal Kombat rejects.
Less successful is what a big old chop suey mess it is – ingredients tossed into the wok with a plot as tangled as a bowl of egg noodles. To love Big Trouble In Little China requires the leniency of a true fan.
For every line of dialogue just asking to be quoted down the pub (“It’s all in the reflexes”), you have to wade through reams of mumbo jumbo exposition, dated special effects and fight scenes that don’t get enough room to breathe thanks to Carpenter’s characteristically lean editing.
When it works – like the moment when Jack and the gang are loved up on a Chinese herbal equivalent of MDMA; or when Thunder, Lightning and Rain kick ass – it feels like an ‘80s cult classic. The rest of the time, though, it’s a reminder why VHS came with a fast-forward button.
Compare the tightness of Carpenter’s next two movies, Prince Of Darkness and They Live, and it’s obvious that the estimated $25 budget did the director more harm than good (not least when the movie failed to recoup even half of what it cost to make).
This extras-packed Blu-ray should win the movie new fans, although true believers will be disappointed that it recycles features from the special edition DVD including its Carpenter/Russell commentary, SFX featurette and vintage Making Of.
New interviews with Carpenter, Russell, cinematographer Dean Cundey and producer Larry J. Franco add value, but what’s sorely needed is a bells ’n’ whistles 60-minute Making Of. Someone needs to argue the fan’s case for why Big Trouble deserves big love.
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