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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

If there is anything to remember John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China for, it is that this film caused Carpenter to finally return to doing independent films after his disappointing run in Hollywood. Escape from New York (1981) was his first big-budget project that also was one of his high points. I was disappointed by Escape from New York. While having Carpenter at his atmospheric best where he creates a fascinating,  and stunningly visionary, setting , as well as being successful and acquiring a dedicated following, it is plagued with a weak plot and sacrificing style well over any sort of substance. Then he moved on to his creature-feature,The Thing (1982), which is well directed, but gross-out visuals and his usual characterization problems caused problems. After The Thing, Carpenters originality disappeared and he resorted to glossy 80s-styled action flicks that have lost almost all of their appeal over the past two decades. With his obvious talents it is shocking to look back at how disappointing his time in Hollywood was. Now we have arrived at the film at hand that finally helped Carpenter come to his senses and return him to his ideal form.

Set in San Francisco's Chinatown. Loud-mouthed truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) must save Chi's girlfriend, Miao Lin (Suzee Pai), who has been captured by the powerful sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong). Lo Pan is the leader of the Wing Wong gang, and his sorcerer henchmen -- called "The Three Storms" -- slaughter a rival gang with their powers and steal Miao Lin so Lo Pan can marry her and earn eternal youth. That is the type of plot that you would expect to be in the head of a 10-year-old boy who can't decide whether he wants to be a wizard, a cowboy, or a ninja, so he just chooses them all. Ironically this film would probably strain the attention span of the 10-year-old who thought of the idea. Remembering the film has every fun moment being continuously interrupted by some idiotic back-and-forth between hero and villain or just abrupt moments of running around -- oddly there is a lot of running around and searching in the campy setting.

There is too much acting in a film that doesn't have any acting to use. Kurt Russell is satisfying when he is fighting something, but his "what's going on" character never becomes that macho badass that he has every reason to be. Young Kim Kattrall shows off her limited acting skills as a dedicated lawyer (horribly named Gracie Law). Dennis Dun plays more of a serious, and at times even more important, role than Russell just without the screen time. James Wong is solid as the evil sorcerer, Lo Pan, desperately wanting eternal youth.

Of course it is the action and visuals that are the entire appeal of Big Trouble in Little China. Carpenter's direction, as always, works well with action sequences. All of the colorful (in appearance and fascination) sets are used well which can distract some attention from the various dull scenes. It is true that Carpenter was not pleased with Boss Film Studios visual effects work, but even though the visuals attack viewers with colors, lights, and even brief, subtle moments of Carpenter's gross-out tactics, they still are a strong point.

It is not surprising that Hollywood actually thought this idea could work, they are always full outrageous ideas, especially in the 80s. Learning of all the trouble that went into the making of the script for this film is unbelievable. Gary Goldman and David Weinstein wrote the original script, but producers rejected it because they didn't feel the genre mixing work together. So, next they brought in respected veteran W.D. Richter (like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai had a good script!) to make some major changes. Well, whatever changes were done, the script is still lousy and the dialogue is full of pauses and even more over-emphasizing. To think that Kurt Russell's awful southern accent and terrible one-liners were actually intended to be a satiric representation of John Wayne is horrendous.

Big Trouble in Little China is one of the weakest films Carpenter has ever made. I already wasn't a fan of his work from the 80s and this film finalizes my opinions. It is always a shame to see a director who always shows signs of extreme talent to suffer because he/she doesn't stick to their guns and stay true to what brought them popularity, and mass acclaim on Carpenter's part. This 80s flick suffers from all the usuals: bad acting, incoherent plot, and horrendous dialogue. Redeeming the flaws suffered here required something to take viewer's minds off of all the dribble being thrown at us, and unfortunately nothing came to the rescue. All in all, this film fails at being dumb-fun and will be forgotten quickly after being viewed.


  1. Even though you're criticizing it, I still think you did a great job at analyzing and stating your opinion. I still want to see this movie, though.

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  3. Nice job mate, hopefully you cheered up from yesterday, we all have our bad days. Only one niggle that I spotted you said 'Lo Pang (James Hong)' twice in the plot paragraph. Apart from that well written and well thoughout.

    Also you spelt colourful wrong as well =P

    I'll give this a miss.

  4. Yeah, I think I'll pass. I can't think of something fun to say about Carpenter. It's depressing to see him go from Halloween to.... this (I guess). Very well written review Adam though :)

  5. Great review...
    Although I did like Carpenter's The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness very much!

    I agree these "Escape..." films were quite trashy..I remember seeing bits and pieces on TV..but never felt like watching all the way!

    Great work man!

  6. This looks dumb but awesome review.

  7. Wow, man. It looks like we're going to disagree a lot. I don't even know where to start with this one, except to tell you that you missed out on some quality cinema. This movie isn't supposed to be taken seriously. The awful dialogue you mentioned is actually hilarious, and Kurt does an awesome John Wayne. I caught on to that right away without having to look it up, at least. Everything that seems ridiculous is supposed to be ridiculous. That's why this movie is fun. Remember when the guy blows himself up like a balloon and explodes? Yea, that's the dumbest fighting technique on the planet, and it would never work. But it's funny. I could start quoting lines, but I'll restrain myself.

  8. By the way, I don't think there's anything wrong with disagreeing about movies. As long as both sides argue honestly, there's always a chance you'll look at something in a different light.

  9. I really do understand what you are saying, but I did not find the dialogue funny, at all. I know this was supposed to be nothing but dumb fun, but I just didn't have much fun with it. I respect your opinion though.

  10. Here's some more food for thought. You mentioned that you wanted Kurt's character to become the bad ass of the movie. The thing about that is the bad ass is already in the movie. Wang Chi is the hero of the tale, and Jack Burton is the bumbling idiot that got caught up in it all. Really, Burton is the most ineffectual dude ever. Every time he needs to step up, he does something dumb. But the movie is kind of playing around with the macho American character that usually saves the day. I think it's pretty cool that he sucks ass.