Big Trouble in Little China was a movie ahead of it’s time.
Released in 1986, the movie was an eccentric — some would say bizarre — mix of kung fu, American bravado and the darkest Chinese magic. Jack Burton is an advice-spewing, self-assured truck driver who gets in far over his head when he drives into San Francisco’s Chinatown. It starts innocently enough, with Jack drinking and gambling with friends. Jack wins a few thousand dollars off of Wang Chi, and in order to collect on his debt, he agrees to accompany his friend to the airport to pick up his sweetheart from China. Afterwards they plan to head to Wang’s restaurant where he’d pay up.
But before Jack can get his money though, things get very, very weird. A Chinese street gang steal’s Chi’s soon-to-be wife. Jack and Wang chase them to Chinatown, where they find themselves in the middle of a massive street fight between rival gang factions, a fight that’s made all the stranger by the arrival of three supernatural “Storms”. These Storms — Chinese demi-gods who combine magic with martial arts to destroy their enemies — serve as heralds for the diabolical Lo Pan. Lo Pan is the ghost of an ancient warrior cursed by the first sovereign Chinese emperor. To be made flesh again he must find a girl with green eyes, marry her to appease the emperor, and then sacrifice her to appease his personal demon.
So of course, Wang and Burton have to get the girl back. They aren’t alone in this quest. The “good guys” of Chinatown, led by tour-bus operator and wise old shaman Egg Shen, are there to help.
And they’ll need all the help they can get.
Fighting the good fight in Chinatown
At it’s heart, Big Trouble in Little China is a movie about heroes. In the nominal lead is Kurt Russell as Jack Burton. At first glance he appears to be a swaggering John Wayne kind of hero, the sort of All-American guy whose supremely competent, and as result, always wins the day. But that’s not Jack. In reality, Jack’s a man with the heart of a hero, but the skills of a monkey. A drunken monkey.
The real competence lies with Wang, who in another movie would have been Jack’s side kick, but in this one is the guy who actually gets the job done. They are flanked by every-day guys who just happen to be martial artists and powerful magicians — and are more than willing to do battle against the forces of evil.
But regardless who actually does the ass-kicking, they’re all heroes. Jack may be dense, but he still does the right thing.
The movie itself is good old-fashioned kung-fu mixed with plenty of eccentric humor. The actors play their characters absolutely straight-faced, and most of the humor is situational, contrasting the seriousness of the characters with the growing absurdity of their surroundings. In many ways, the movie is like a really good game of Dungeons and Dragons, combining over-the-top heroics with quippy one-liners (one classic takes place as the heroes are navigating the otherworldly tunnels beneath Chinatown: Egg Shen describes the liquid surrounding them as “the black blood of the Earth”. Burton, skeptical, says “you mean oil?” and Shen comes back “no, I mean Black Blood of the Earth!”)
It’s the sort of humor that geeks love and the rest of the world rolls their eyes at. And it makes for a hard time at the box office. Big Trouble in Little China, released the same year as Aliens, was a movie that critics (and many movie-goers) didn’t know what to do with. Was it a comedy? And adventure film? A kung fu flick? And why the hell was leading man Kurt Russell such an idiot? The movie didn’t exactly explode in the box office, but it did pick up a cult following on videotape.
A homage on DVD
Big Trouble in Little China is one of the reasons I love DVDs. Big Trouble‘d been out on video for years, but of course it standard pan-and-scan format (which crops/butchers the movie to fit it to your television). The quality, especially of those old tapes from the 1980s, is simply terrible — the film looks dull and the audio is uninspiring. It experiences a quantum leap on DVD — the film looks and sounds good on disc, and the wide-screen format is as it should be.
The movie comes on two discs, each of which are navigated using 3D digital menus recreated from the movie. The first disc holds the movie and commentary track with director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell. The commentary track is gold — Carpenter and Russell have worked together on nearly a half-dozen movies (Escape from New York, The Thing) and they talk about the movie in a laid-back, conversational style. Carpenter and Russell have blast recounting their making of the film, discuss Carpenter’s vision for the film (yes, he meant to do it this way), Russell’s willingness to play the less-then-perfect Jack Burton, and giving a few insights into the film’s creation.
The second disc is for true Big Trouble fans. There are about a dozen deleted scenes, most of which are extended versions of scenes already in the movie. There’s also a 1980s-era featurette, an interview with special effects guru Richard Edlund, trailers and TV spots, production notes, magazine articles and — if you can believe it — a music video with director John Carpenter singing the theme song.
It all makes Big Trouble one of the strongest speculative fiction DVDs on the market, and a must-buy for fans of the movie.