Saturday, November 6, 2010

Signals From Left Field: Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

From Left Field? Just like many of the films I'll discuss, many of the choices I make might come "from left field." I like quirky as much I as like cake, and that's a whole lot, so I hope you enjoy my look at cult, semi-cult, and whatever movie strikes my fancy at any given time. And away we go with my first choice...

When I first saw John Carpenter's underrated gem of an action-comedy-martial arts-fantasy flick, Big Trouble In Little China, I was a student majoring in Amateur Party-Attending and Alcohol Consumption at Central Michigan University, circa 1987. It was a Saturday night, and I stumbled into my dorm sometime after midnight. Merrill Hall was good about having movies to watch in the commons room on Saturdays, and as my eyes adjusted to the non-smoky, bright interior of the dorm lobby, this is the wondrous sight they saw:

The stunning alley fight that establishes the line between good and evil, and puts our hero Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) in the thick of the strangest adventure that involves magic, demi-gods, and modernized Chinese mythology - that was it...I was drawn in and would never leave this movie's warm and goofy embrace.

Big Trouble In Little China is director John Carpenter's true cult film. Halloween may be his incredible debut and a study in suspense that would make Alfred Hitchcock jealous, but this 1986 tribute to true adventure and Hong Kong action films didn't fare as well at the box office. You'd think it would've done better, as nearly everyone I know loves the movie. But, in reality, it's just that my closest friends and I tend to like the same movies, and so when I ask a "movie non-buff" if they like it, I usually get a shrug and/or a blank look. Halloween usually gets more of a response.

"Seinfeld, four!"

Haven't seen it? Here's a quick rundown: egotistical yet philosophical trucker Burton and his buddy, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), run afoul of local bad guy David Lo Pan (James Hong) who turns out to be a cursed demi-god in search of a Chinese girl with green eyes so that he can become human again. As a result, Jack loses his truck and Wang loses his girlfriend to Lo Pan and his admittedly kick-ass henchmen, the Three Storms who possess the names and powers of rain, thunder, and lightning. Enlisting the help of a group of good-guy warriors and tour guide/sorcerer Egg Shen (the great Victor Wong - you've seen him in Tremors), Jack and Wang storm Lo Pan's vast underground world to rescue Wang's girlfriend and intrepid reporter Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall, thankfully pre-Sex In The City). What follows can be described as John Wayne meets the dark side of Oz in a crazy battle underneath Chinatown.

Big Trouble In Little China always reminds of me what it's like to have fun watching a movie. You could describe the film as "good dumb fun," but really, there's nothing dumb about it. The hero is immensely likable, the villain is appropriately over-the-top, and the pure fantasy facets of the movie tell you screw reality and sit back to enjoy the ride. It looks good; there's a rich palette of colors, enhanced by neon and bright but unobtrusive special effects. It sounds good; Carpenter's minimalist score - as usual - fits with the action on the screen, and the whooshes and crackles of the battle scenes cartwheel out of your speakers.

One of the little details I loved about the movie is the hint of a wider world than we actually see. Yes, there's the actual story, but there are strong clues that this battle of good (the Chang Sing gang) and evil (the Wing Kong gang) has been raging for centuries. And not only the battle itself, but the characters as well, especially Egg Shen and Lo Pan.

When discussing his search for a green-eyed woman, Lo Pan remarks "There have been others, to be sure. There are always others, are there not?" Maybe there have been other adventures, other heroes that have thwarted Lo Pan with Egg's help. Hmm. We definitely know Egg and Lo Pan have crossed paths before, and Egg isn't just a lovable, kooky local magician. When Lo Pan tells the Three Storms that Egg is leading the band of heroes, the Storms give each other a fearful look. Egg apparently already has either faced them, or has carved out a reputation for himself battling other demons. And there's a telling exchange between the two adversaries during the climactic battle scene, as they battle to a magical stalemate, and Lo Pan brags, "You never could beat me, Egg Shen."

When a movie, no matter how much in the "big dumb fun" niche it is, stirs the imagination of my childhood and causes me to dream up my own continuing stories (I always called mine More Trouble In Little China - don't judge)...then it will win my heart. Big Trouble In Little China won my heart in 1987 on that post-party, not-entirely-sober Saturday night in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, and has kept it for 23 years and counting. Although Carpenter has made a number of my favorite films, such as the aforementioned Halloween, They Live, Prince of Darkness, and The Thing, this movie - this true definition of a "romp" - remains my favorite of the bunch.


Enjoy, and remember to bring the popcorn.


Pax Romano said...

Excellent review of an unappreciated flick. I owned the VHS for years, and am hoping for a DVD Blu Ray copy in the near future.

Dod said...

Thanks, Pax!

When this baby comes out on Blu-Ray, I will be all over it!

le0pard13 said...

There's so much to love about this film! It was criminal that it was ignored when it first came out (I know because I was there in a darkened theatre on its initial run). It's humor, the flipping of the sidekick and hero roles, the great James Hong and the always solid Kurt Russell really round it out as an underrated great. Fine look at this, Dod. Thanks.