DT Moviehouse Review: Big Trouble In Little China

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I review John Carpenter’s 80’s fantasy adventure Big Trouble In Little China.

(1986) Directed by John Carpenter

Screenplay by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein


Jack Burton is in for some serious trouble. And you’re in for some serious fun.


What It’s About:

vlc2012-05-1003-25-10-25When Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), the green eyed girl of swaggering long haul livestock trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell)’s buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is kidnapped by Chinese gangsters and dragged off into the mysterious underworld of San Francisco’s Chinatown, they pursue her kidnappers in Jack’s rig, The Porkchop Express. Stumbling upon a brutal streetfight between the Chang Sings and the Wing Kong, rival tong factions, Jack and Wang witness the arrival of a supernatural entity called Lo Pan (David Wong) and his three mystically superpowered henchmen, the Storms, and are forced to abandon his truck. Uncovering centuries old ghostly happenings, Jack and Wang must enlist the aid of wily old sorcerer Egg Chen (Victor Wong), crusading lawyer Gracie Law (the lovely Kim Cattrall), and others to rescue Miao Yin and defeat Lo Pan.

Why I Bought It:

Big Trouble In Little China is my favorite John Carpenter movie. It foresaw the Hong Kong action cinema craze of the nineties by nearly a decade, and predictably, found no audience upon its release.

I saw it on video with a buddy and his cousin, and loved it out of the gate. I had never seen anything like it. It’s hilarious, action packed, visually exciting, full of awe-inducing practical FX by Richard Edlund, has one of Carpenter’s best synth scores (the whole thing sounds like an 80’s arcade game, which is fitting as its plot probably inspired a slew of them) and has what I think is unequivocally one of the most audaciously conceived and inspired protagonists in all of popcorn cinema; Jack Burton.

Big-Trouble-03Jack is a blustery, overconfident braggart who’s seen too many John Wayne and Eastwood flicks (he carries around a pair of saddlebags like The Man With No Name) and is at nearly every turn, in over his head. He’s a total fool. He’s a horrible liar, his jokes fall flat, he’s never fired a gun (as evidenced when he nearly fails to blast a Wing Kong attacker because the safety’s still on his Tec-9. When he manages to squeeze a few timely shots off and blinks thoughtfully at the dead man, Eddie asks “First time you ever plugged somebody?” Jack immediately recovers his former loping posture and shrugs, annoyed. “’Course not!”), and he charges into everything like a bull in a china shop (no pun intended). He’s the big dumb American cowboy stomping through a supernatural kung fu flick.

And the great thing about him is, it works for him. There is an adage that God watches over drunkards, children, and fools.  It’s implied that Jack is two out of the three. He knocks himself out exuberantly blowing chunks of stone from the ceiling, gets pinned under a heavily armored guard, and is easily bested even by the butterfly knife toting punks at the airport (When the littlest of the punks Jack tries to buffalo whips out a telescoping steel baton, Jack looks confused. “Hey….where’d you get that?” Always makes me laugh out loud). But in the zero hour, when it counts the most, somehow, beyond all reason, Jack comes through in spades.

2334386-big_trouble_in_little_chinaMy fellow writer and movie buff Derrick Ferguson blew my understanding of the character wide open when he observed that Jack Burton is NOT the main character of Big Trouble In Little China. He’s the sidekick. He’s the comic relief. But his ego and self-delusion doesn’t allow him to believe he’s not the hero.  Really the story is Wang Chi’s. He’s the earnest one out to save his girl, and he’s an extremely adept fighter. Even Egg Chen’s motivations are more compelling. Jack just blundered into everything. He’s just a guy that hauls pigs for a living. P1030678The only thing at stake for him is his truck. Granted, The Porkchop Express is his livelihood and a big deal for him, but Lo Pan’s taking of it is a footnote to the story. He’s not going to take over the world with Jack’s truck, and indeed, the recovery of The Porkchop Express is even treated as a sidenote to the action. “There’s my truck,” Jack mumbles as he pulls open a door, then does a double take, as if even the screenwriters have forgotten about it. “My TRUCK!”

bigtrouble3Another great draw of Big Trouble is James Hong’s Lo Pan. The nature of Lo Pan’s curse means he is at times a young, tall, imposing, graceful warlord in resplendent mandarin garb – but a totally insubstantial ghost – and at others, a withered, cantankerous, crippled old man trembling in a wheel chair.  Hong manages to make both incarnations utterly distinct and yet tie them together with a malevolent jubilance that comes through in his shrill, cackling laughter and apparently incongruous modernisms. Old Lo Pan has some of the funniest lines in the movie, and his speech and dialogue were endlessly quoted by my circle of friends as a kid (“Who are these? Friends of yours? Now this really pisses me off to no end!”). The young Lo Pan is magnificently imposing, dark and intriguing, and totally believable in his silky, seductive manipulations of Grace Law and Miao Yin. The fact that both aspects are played by the same actor is a testament to that actor’s skill.

lightThe movie is wonderfully imaginative. There’s the aforementioned three badass henchmen, The Three Storms, obviously inspired by Kazuo Koike’s basket-headed master assassins the Hidari Brothers (or The “Bentenrai”) from the Lone Wolf and Cub manga and film series, one of which generates brilliant chains of wild lightning with a series of furious martial art wind-ups (and in turn inspired Mortal Kombat’s Raiden character).  Lo Pan spies on interlopers with a kind of floating D&D Beholder with an eyeball on the end of its tongue. Egg buffs his allies with super powered awareness and abilities via a smoking Dr. Frankenstein potion from his mysterious six demon bag, from which he also pulls a jewel that allows him to engage in a sorcerous bout of virtual Street Fighter with Lo Pan. For some reason there’s some kind of monstrous fanged wildman running around.

vlcsnap-293418Among all this madness, I love that the Chinese characters take every incredible happening for granted as reality. It’s a funny contrast to Jack’s astonishment at everything he sees. In my opinion, the fact that nothing is really overly explained reinforces this cultural disconnect. At one point they travel to Lo Pan’s lair by passing through some subterranean passage bubbling with rivers of black blood (“You mean oil?” “I mean black blood of the earth.”) and apparently teeming with creepy crawly man eating abominations (“It will come out no more!” “What? Huh?! What’ll come out no more?!”). Egg, a kind of Chinese Van Helsing, rattles off a legend about the surface of the earth turning over a thousand years ago, and deflects all of Jack’s (and our) western questions with one line, infuriatingly vague answers.

big-trouble-in-little-chinaI understand this movie has sometimes been panned as racist, but really, that’s hokum. Although the main villains are Chinese, so are the heroes, and frankly, when I first saw Big Trouble, I don’t think I’d seen such badass depictions of Asian people since Enter The Dragon. The fight in the alleyway is still an exciting bit of martial arts action, featuring some awesome stick and sword fighting. It’s also peppered with familiar faces like Bruce Lee’s Filipino student Dan Inosanto (who crossed sticks with his sifu in Game of Death), the great Al Leong (who warrants his own blog post I’ve gotta get to one of these days), and memorably, Gerald Okamura as what can only be described as some kind of zen gunfighter.

The Chinese characters are not all martial artists either. Eddie (Donald Li), Wang (well OK, Wang is), Egg, and Uncle Chu (Chao Li Chi) come across as very real people, despite their involvement in supernatural matters. Even Lo Pan is a believable character. I admit I still don’t get why Thunder blows himself up at his master’s death beyond the obvious and culturally incorrect seppuku explanation.

Going back once more to the zen gunfighter thing, along with Jack’s saddlebags, I think that’s a throwback to the original script. Big Trouble was originally written as a weird western and Jack was out to recover his beloved horse. I’ve never read the first draft, but it’s interesting to think of what kind of movie it would’ve been.

I gotta mention the end title song sung by the Coup De Villes (John Carpenter’s band featuring himself, Tommy Lee Wallace – director of my all time favorite Halloween movie, Season of The Witch – and Nick ‘Michael Meyers’ Castle), which sounds to me like its meant to be Jack and Wang singing. I have nothing in particular to say about it, I just love it.

Best Dialogue:

“You were not brought upon this world to ‘get it,’ Mr. Burton.”

Best Scene:

No question the scene where Jack takes out Lo Pan.

Up until this point Jack hasn’t really distinguished himself in any way. Wang Chi has upstaged him, he spent the first half of the climactic big fight unconscious and the second part pinned underneath a heavily armored guard.

Big-Trouble-2He finally gets an honest kiss out of his would-be girl Gracie Law, but then steps up to the newly made flesh Lo Pan and Thunder (about to kill Miao Yin to break his curse once and for all) with her lipstick smeared across his lips and teeth, undermining his big confrontational speech. He’s taken down a further notch when he intones “Yeah, you know what old Jack Burton always says….” And Thunder interrupts with “Who?!”

Wang closes with Thunder and the two take their battle offscreen as Jack takes out his trusty knife and flings it at Lo Pan.

Lo Pan steps aide easily and it clangs into a gong.

Jack takes a deep “Goddammit” breath and glances at Gracie who sighs and gives him a hilarious, “Aw, Jack” look.

Miao Yin breaks away from Lo Pan and rushes to Jack’s side as Lo Pan stoops to retrieve the knife and examines it in his long taloned fingers.

“Good knife. Goodbye, Mr. Burton.”

Lo Pan throws the knife at Jack.

Jack plucks it out of the air and throws it back, sending it dead center into Lo Pan’s forehead, between his two surprised eyes.

50bPan topples over, the room rumbles as his spirit departs, and the lines of golden ceramic Buddhas flanking Jack in the center of the aisle collapse and smash like dominos.

Jack looks at Gracie and Miao Yin, who are both as astounded as the audience.

Savoring what’s probably the one truly cool moment of his life, he shrugs.

“It’s all in the reflexes.”

I don’t know if I can adequately convey the hilarity and excellence of this scene. Even watching it now I still got a momentary chill. When I and my eleven year old buddies saw it for the first time, we nearly drove the couch down through the floor into the basement whooping it up and jumping up and down in excitement.

Would I Buy It Again? Yes. The DVD purchase is alone worth it because of Carpenter and Russell’s commentary, one of the top three commentaries I’ve ever listened to. It’s hilarious. You can hear their liquor glasses clinking throughout the audio, and they steadily laugh more and more at both the movie and each other.

Next In The Queue: The Black Swan

DT Moviehouse

I’ve decided to institute a new (ir)regular feature here on Delirium Tremens.

I watch a lot of movies. A LOT.

But I don’t take home everything I’ve seen. For me to pay for a movie again past the initial theatrical viewing or rental, that movie has really got to speak to me on some level that will induce me to not only want to revisit it at my leisure, but to send a monetary message to the creators that I appreciated their work (altough in taking stock of what I have, there are a couple titles I was given as gifts that I haven’t even watched yet!).

That said, I own something over two hundred movies, give or take. So yeah, lots of appreciation there.

In part to give me something more to do on this blog than just plug my work, and in part to justify my owning all these dang DVD’s and Blu-Rays, I’m going to go through my collection alphabetically and start revisiting and reviewing them here.

I’m no film critic. At least, no more than anybody else. I went to film school yeah, but I promise I’ll keep the mise en scene and chiaroscuro comments to a minimum. I’ve got opinions, and I’ve got memories of the movies on this list, and I’ll share them. That’s it. Oh and there’ll probably be spoilers. So I’m telling you now ‘cause I don’t intend to write it over every single review. Most of these are a couple years old anyway, or will be by the time I get to ‘em.

Here’s the list, which I’ll update if I make new purchases. I also intend to replace the reviewed titles with hyperlinks to the reviews as I write them for ease of reference (if I can figure out how to do that). This should take me a while to get through. No promises as to regularity, but eventually, one day, I’ll get to the end. Maybe it’ll even be fun.

Anyway, here’s the list of my collection. Don’t expect to see too many scathing reviews here. Like I said, I don’t buy stuff I don’t like, and anyway I don’t have the time or energy to complain about things I don’t like. Better to celebrate things I do, right? Right.

As always, feel free to comment, if you’re so inclined.

  • 8 Mile
  • 300
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood
  • The Agony And The Ecstacy
  • Alien
  • Aliens
  • The Apostle
  • At The Circus
  • Atlantis: The Los Empire
  • Attack The Block
  • Back To The Future
  • Back To The Future II
  • Back To The Future III
  • Bad Company
  • Batman Begins
  • The Beast Must Die
  • Ben-Hur
  • Beneath The Planet Of The Apes
  • Better Off Dead
  • Big Trouble In Little China
  • The Black Hole
  • The Black Swan
  • Blade
  • The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi
  • The Blood of Heroes
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • The Brides Of Dracula
  • Bronco Billy
  • Buffalo Soldiers
  • A Bullet For The General
  • Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid
  • Cabin In The Woods
  • The Call of Cthulhu
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • Captain Blood
  • The Car
  • Casino Royale
  • Chato’s Land
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion The Witch and The WardrobeThe Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe
  • Cimarron
  • Clash Of The Titans
  • Cloverfield
  • Conan The Barbarian
  • Conquest of The Planet of The Apes
  • Constantine
  • Cool Hand Luke
  • Crank
  • Cross Of Iron
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Curse Of The Demon (aka Night Of The Demon)
  • Cyrano De Bergerac
  • Daimajin/Wrath of Daimajin
  • Dances With Wolves
  • The Dark Knight
  • The Dark Knight Rises
  • Daredevil
  • The Dark Crystal
  • A Day At The Races
  • Dead Man
  • The Deadpool
  • Destry Rides Again
  • Diamonds Are Forever
  • Die Another Day
  • Die Hard
  • Dillinger
  • Dirty Harry
  • Django Unchained
  • Dog Soldiers
  • Down With Love
  • Dr. No
  • Dragonslayer
  • Dungeons and Dragons
  • The Enforcer
  • Enter The Dragon
  • Escape From New York
  • Escape From The Planet Of The Apes
  • E.T. The Extraterrestrial
  • Ever After
  • The Ewok Movies (Caravan of Courage/Battle For Endor)
  • Excalibur
  • The Far Country
  • Fiend Without A Face
  • The Fighting Kentuckian
  • First Blood
  • A Fistful of Dollars
  • Flag Of Iron
  • Flight Of The Phoenix
  • For A Few Dollars More
  • Frailty
  • From Russia With Love
  • Gamera 3: Revenge Of Iris
  • Gattaca
  • Glory
  • Godzilla vs. Biollante
  • Godzilla vs Hedorah
  • Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II
  • Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah
  • Godzilla vs. Mothra:BattleFor Earth
  • Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla
  • Godzilla vs. Destroyah
  • Godzilla 2000
  • Godzilla Mothra and King Gihodrah: Giant Monster All Out Attack
  • Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla
  • Godzilla Tokyo SOS
  • GoldenEye
  • Goldfinger
  • The Good The Bad And The Ugly
  • The Goonies
  • Go West
  • The Great Santini
  • The Great Silence
  • The Green Hornet
  • Green Lantern
  • Gremlins
  • Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan The Lord Of The Apes
  • Gunga Din
  • Gymkata
  • Halloween III
  • Hamlet (Mel Gibson)
  • Happy Accidents
  • The Haunting
  • Heat
  • Hell Is For Heroes
  • The Hidden Fortress
  • The Hired Hand
  • Hombre
  • Hondo
  • Hot Fuzz
  • Hulk
  • I Declare War
  • Indiana Jones And The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull
  • Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade
  • Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom
  • In Harm’s Way
  • Insomnia
  • Iron Man
  • Iron Man 2
  • Iron Man 3
  • It’s Always Fair Weather
  • I Was A Teenage Frankenstein
  • I Was A Teenage Werewolf
  • Jarhead
  • Jesus Christ Superstar
  • John Carter of Mars
  • The Jungle Book (Sabu)
  • The Karate Kid
  • The Killing
  • King Arthur
  • King Kong vs. Godzilla
  • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
  • Krull
  • Kung Fu Panda
  • Kwaidan
  • LA Confidential
  • Ladyhawke
  • Lair Of The White Worm
  • The Last Detail
  • The Last Starfighter
  • The Last Man On Earth
  • The Last Temptation Of Christ
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • A League Of Their Own
  • Legend
  • Legend of The Drunken Master
  • Leon The Professional
  • Lethal Weapon
  • License To Kill
  • The Life And Times of Judge Roy Bean
  • Live And Let Die
  • The Living Daylights
  • Lone Wolf And Cub: Sword Of Vengeance
  • Lone Wolf And Cub: Baby Cart At The River Styx
  • Lone Wolf And Cub: Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons
  • The Long Good Friday
  • The Long Riders
  • The Lord Of The Rings (Ralph Bakshi)
  • The Lost Weekend
  • Mad Max
  • Magnum Force
  • The Manchurian Candidate
  • The Man From Earth
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
  • The Man With The Golden Gun
  • The Mark Of Zorro
  • Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World
  • Mars Attacks
  • Miami Blues
  • The Missing
  • Monty Python And The Holy Grail
  • Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life
  • Mystery Men
  • The Naked Prey
  • Near Dark
  • Nevada Smith
  • A Night At The Opera
  • A Night In Casablanca
  • Night of The Hunter
  • Observe And Report
  • The Offence
  • Office Space
  • Once Upon A Time In The West
  • On The Waterfront
  • Open Range
  • The Others
  • Outland
  • The Outlaw Josey Wales
  • Patton
  • Peter Pan
  • Pirates Of The Caribbean: Curse of The Black Pearl
  • Planet Of The Apes
  • Platoon
  • Popeye
  • Predator
  • The Princess Bride
  • Prometheus
  • The Proposition
  • The Punisher
  • The Quiet Man
  • Raging Bull
  • Rambo (IV)
  • Ravenous
  • Real Steel
  • Rear Window
  • The Rebirth of Mothra (1 and 2)
  • Red River
  • Reign of Fire
  • The Return of The 5 Deadly Venoms
  • Ride With The Devil
  • Rio Bravo
  • Rio Grande
  • Robin And The 7 Hoods
  • Robocop
  • The Rocketeer
  • Rocky II
  • Rocky III
  • Rocky IV
  • Room Service
  • Rope
  • Run Ronnie Run
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Scarface (Howard Hawks)
  • The Searchers
  • Se7en
  • The Seven Ups
  • Shaft’s Big Score
  • Shaolin Soccer
  • Shaun Of The Dead
  • She Wore A Yellow Ribbon
  • The Shootist
  • Signs
  • The Sixth Sense
  • Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow
  • Sleeping Beauty
  • The Sound Of Music
  • Spartacus
  • Spider-Man
  • Spider-Man 2
  • The Spy Who Loved Me
  • Stander
  • Stardust
  • Star Trek The Motion Picture
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  • Star Trek III: The Search For Spock
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
  • Star Trek: Generations
  • Star Trek: First Contact
  • Star Trek: Insurrection
  • Star Trek: Nemesis
  • Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith
  • Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
  • Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
  • Star Wars Episode VI: Return of The Jedi
  • State of Grace
  • The Sting
  • Strangers On A Train
  • Sudden Impact
  • Superman The Movie
  • Superman II
  • Sword Of Doom
  • The Ten Commandments
  • Thief
  • Thief Of Bagdad
  • The Third Man
  • The Thirteenth Warrior
  • Thunderball
  • The Time Machine
  • Touch Of Evil
  • Treasure Of The Sierra Madre
  • True Grit (original)
  • Unforgiven
  • The Untouchables
  • Wall-E
  • Warlock
  • The Warriors
  • The War Of The Worlds
  • Whale Rider
  • Where Eagles Dare
  • White Zombie
  • The Whole Wide World
  • The Wicker Man
  • The Wild Bunch
  • Winchester ’73
  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • The Wolfman
  • The Woman In Black
  • Wyatt Earp
  • X2: X-Men United
  • X3: The Last Stand
  • X-Men
  • X-Men: First Class
  • The Yakuza
  • You Only Live Twice
  • Young Guns
  • The Young Lions