John Carpenter’s ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ was brilliantly ahead of its time

Kim Cattral, Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun and Suzee Pai in 'Big Trouble in Little China'
Kim Cattral, Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun and Suzee Pai in ‘Big Trouble in Little China’

When I found out that Carpenter had participated in a DVD release of this film, I had to get my hands on it. Fortunately, the holiday season was friendly for me, and I was given it as a birthday gift from my brother-in-law.

I loved this movie when I first saw it on television more than ten years ago. Although it wasn’t the box office hit the studio apparently thought it would be, it became wildly popular in its video release.

Now it has received the proper DVD treatment, equipped with an audio commentary by Carpenter and Russell, deleted scenes, a making-of documentary and a hilarious music video (more on that later).

For those unfamiliar, here’s the low down:

Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is a truck driver in California. Filled with confidence and very little skill, he arrives in Chinatown in San Francisco, where he meets up with an old friend, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun). When Burton accompanies his friend to the airport to meet his fiancé — a green-eyed beauty from China — trouble ensues.

She is kidnapped by a local Chinese gang. But, supernatural forces soon get involved, as ancient Chinese legends come to life. It appears the evil David Lo Pan (James Hong), trapped for centuries as a ghost, needs a green-eyed bride to break the curse and become flesh again.

He kidnaps Chi fiancé, with the help of a force of Kong-Fu fighters, and three magical spirits known as the “Three Storms”. This leaves Burton to help his friend save his fiancé.

First and foremost, the film is NOT to be taken seriously. It’s generally tongue-in-cheek, and flips the traditional role of hero and sidekick. Russell’s character actually becomes the sidekick, while Dun plays the ass-kicking hero. The humor of the film is on the odd side, so you’ll either love it or hate it.

I loved it.

Big Trouble in Little China was also, to my knowledge, the first American film to incorporate the elaborate fighting styles and choreography popular in Hong Kong action films, and recently made famous in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Mind you, it doesn’t do it very well, but for the time at which it was made — pre-digital — it does a good job. I’m sure had Carpenter had access to today’s effects technology, it would have been stunning.

This DVD is highlighted by Carpenter’s commentary. This is why I fell in love with audio commentaries. Although Carpenter and Russell go off on a few unrelated tangents here and there, the conversations they have are interesting, and the insight they provide into the film are great. The two also worked together on the commentary over The Thing — without a doubt Carpenter’s best film.

Big Trouble in Little China is not for everyone. But if you’re looking for a fun film that takes the classic formula for a buddy picture, and turns it slightly askew, then you’ll get a kick out of this film.

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