Ah, the sweet smell of nostalgia.
I grew up in the eighties, and while the decade produced some of the most fun and memorable movies ever to grace the silver screen, I'll be the first to admit that the era also had a hand in creating some of the tackiest efforts in cinematic history. But no film from those wonder years manages to juggle cheese and charm quite as nimbly as John Carpenter's 'Big Trouble in Little China.' The trick in pulling off such an incredible feat of skill and finesse can easily be explained by a string of five words from a wise, brash soul…
Just like ol' Jack Burton always says -- it's all in the reflexes.
While on a stop in San Francisco's Chinatown, blisteringly obnoxious trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) scores big at the dominoes table and is owed a hefty chunk of coin from his old buddy Wang (Dennis Dun). Wang assures Jack he has the cash back at his restaurant, but first they have to make a quick side trip to the airport to pick up Wang's green-eyed fiancée Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) who is flying in from China. Unfortunately, things don't exactly go according to plan, for as soon as Miao comes through the gates she's abducted by members of the notorious Lords of Death. Jack and Wang take chase all the way back to Chinatown, where Jack gets his first bitter taste of Chinese black magic in the form of three mystical "Storm" warriors and their ancient immortal master, Lo Pan (James Hong). Forced to retreat, Jack and Wang regroup and return with a posse of their own, including ditzy attorney Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall of 'Sex in the City') and an odd little tour bus driving sorcerer named Egg Chen (the late Victor Wong). However, Lo Pan has nefarious plans for Miao Yin and her exquisite green eyes -- and if he succeeds it will break a curse that has shackled him for centuries.
'Big Trouble in Little China' is the perfect example of a movie that was well ahead of its time. When it first hit theaters in the summer of 1986, the film took a nosedive at the box office and couldn't even recoup half of its estimated $25 million budget. It also didn't help matters that it was poorly marketed by the studio as a more serious 'Indiana Jones' style adventure flick, either, so when critics went in expecting one thing and were struck in the side of their heads with something totally out of left field -- needless to say most were overwhelmed by a tidal wave of confusion. The cartoony potpourri of genres riddled with a pastiche of caricatures and more stereotypes than one could wave a pair of chopsticks at, basically ended up creating a sensory overload -- so it was too much to process and just easier to dismiss it entirely. The funny thing is, it was this odd blend of weirdness and satire that has enabled the film to cultivate such a strong cult following. Sometimes when something is so different, it takes a while before it gains the appreciation it rightfully deserves.
Most of the characters are indeed paper thin -- but again the B-movie intention is the whole point. Besides, all eyes should be fixated on Kurt Russell anyway, whose pitch-perfect performance as Jack Burton has more than enough personality to go around Chinatown. The movie is tethered securely to Russell, and he swaggers well out in front hitting every comedic mark flawlessly the entire way. His lines are delivered with impeccable timing and are some of the most hilarious things I've ever heard, while his facial expressions are absolutely priceless. Plus in all honesty I don't think any man's man can wear a bright shade of red lipstick as handsomely as Russell can. That scene shatters the funny bone every time I see it.
Of course, there are parts of 'Big Trouble in Little China' that really haven't aged all that well over the years and utterly scream 1980s. John Carpenter's score lays down the synthesizer so thick I kept expecting an appearance by Crockett and Tubbs. During the airport sequence, it's hard not to burst out in laughter at the Lords of Death's ridiculous attire. I mean, these guys are supposed to be menacing bad asses, but with those outfits a more appropriate name for them would be Lords of We Dressed Ourselves in the Dark or Lords of the Michael Jackson's "Beat It" Music Video. It's also hard to ignore the glowing ribbons of neon streaming throughout the inner sanctum of Lo Pan's lair that just didn't go with the rest of his decor. That being said, since 'Big Trouble in Little China' is intended to be a goofy drive-in throwback, it can get away with it better than most. So really, even the sourer elements like these tend to taste a little sweeter.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Fox Home Entertainment presents 'Big Trouble in Little China' on a dual-layered BD-50 Blu-ray disc housed inside a standard blue keepcase. The U.S. version of the Blu-ray is also reported to be region-free and therefore should play properly in all PlayStation 3 and standalone players.
It's been a long time since I last saw 'Big Trouble in Little China,' but to paraphrase Egg Chen, the new 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (2.35:1 aspect ratio) encode on this Blu-ray reveals things no one could see and does things no other previous home video release of the film could do. It's like it downed the little sorcerer's wispy wonder potion and instantly rejuvenated itself with a healthy dose of Chinese magic.
Carpenter went with a neutral color palette in the movie, with the only real splurges of any bright coloring reserved for Lo Pan's wardrobe and lair -- and it works fairly well. Blacks are solid, although I counted one or two places where they fade slightly. A mild layer of grain blankets the picture, and aside from a few spikes in a handful of scenes it's mostly consistent and attractive. Skin tones are natural, fine detailing is excellent, and many scenes have a pleasing three-dimensional "pop." The Blu-ray for 'Big Trouble in Little China' may not be as visually stunning as Carpenter's 'The Thing,' but it still sports a dazzling transfer.
Fox has given 'Big Trouble in Little China' a respectable lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack which doesn't sound bad at all for an eighties film, even if it is generally a front-loaded mix.
The soundstage isn't quite as airy as some releases, but there are numerous distinct sounds and discreet effects for an overall pleasing experience. Gunshots bounce around from speaker to speaker, while thunder and crackles of lightning have a bold and electrifying presence. The witty dialogue is crisp and easy to catch, the only issue I had was that it does tend to sound a tad pitchy in a couple areas. Carpenter's score is kept primarily to the front channels as well, and the rears do perk up for rain and certain action scenes. The bass could have been stronger, but the infamous Pork Chop Express is rather lean and mean. If the rears only had a bit more punch and the bass was more powerful and consistent throughout, this track would have really rocked.
The disc includes the following alternate soundtracks: English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Digital 5.1, Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby digital 5.1, Russian DTS 5.1, and Thail Stereo. There are also optional English SDH, Portuguese, Portuguese Text, Cantonese, Korean, French Text, Russian, Russian Text, Russian Commentary, Spanish, Spanish Text, Mandarin, and Thai subtitles.
Most of the supplements on the Blu-ray are recycled content from previous DVD releases. While I wish there was a bit more new stuff here, at least what's on the disc still isn't all that bad.
'Big Trouble in Little China' may not be widely regarded as John Carpenter's best film, but the charmingly cheesy cult classic certainly takes the prize as his most outlandish effort to date. Kurt Russell also gives the performance of his lifetime. Although pretty well all of the supplements on this Blu-ray have been recycled from past home video releases, the improved high-definition picture and sound is easily well worth the upgrade for fans of this '80s gem.