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Big Trouble in Little China (1986) starring Kurt Russell and created by John Carpenter. Give it a chance you won’t regret it.

I was scrolling though the Netflix on demand movies wondering what would be family appropriate and was happy to see the Big Trouble in Little China was available for the watching.  I remember this film from the 80’s and have always liked it.  Given that the movie is now considered a “cult classic” I feel vindicated that my perception of the film has some wider-spread acceptance than the Box Office numbers the movie failed to generate.

 

Few works of ’80s commercial cinema still seem as fresh as John Carpenter’s ninth feature, a rowdy, rocking hunk of fun that both fulfils and subverts many ideals of action filmmaking. Big Trouble has been described as ahead of its time, in that it anticipated, and still outclasses, the great wave of Asian-Hollywood fusion flicks that took over action cinema from the mid ’90s on, represented by The Matrix, Kill Bill, the American starring vehicles of Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat and Jet Li, and sundry others martial-arts-infused movies. But in other, fundamental ways, it’s still unique. It was, in its own moment, a painful flop that effectively ended Carpenter’s rise up the rungs of Hollywood, in spite of it being his most stylistically confident and technically accomplished film; his next work, Prince of Darkness (1987), was a virtual bargain-basement affair. The reasons for Big Trouble’s failure are now practically lost in the mist of time, but its cult status today is undeniable and entirely deserved.

Big Trouble’s cheeky take on the genre template commences with the fact that Jack Burton, the hero Kurt Russell plays, isn’t really the hero at all. He’s a tough-talking truck driver, fond of broadcasting his personal mythology over the CB radio and coming on like John Wayne’s bastard son, but he’s not too far from the kinds of character Bob Hope and Don Adams played, a posturing clot with occasional moments of competence—a poke in the eye for what was then the cult of greased-up machismo represented by Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Jack is friend and veritable sidekick to Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), whose physical prowess as a brilliant martial artist and motivation to snatch back his true love from the forces of evil clearly mark him as the real protagonist.

 

Carpenter and Russell had previously worked together on the telemovie Elvis (1979), Escape from New York (1981)(also reviewed here), and The Thing, but Big Trouble was the true high point of that collaboration, at least in terms of the director’s intent and the actor’s capacities meshing. Few other young male movie stars have ever betrayed such a willingness to send themselves up as Russell did here. For example, Burton answers the question “Are you ready?” when venturing into any enemy lair with a swaggering “I was born ready!” Once there, however, he drops weapons, can’t work out how to let go of an opponent he’s holding prone, and looks momentarily shocked when he shoots someone, giving away his essential lack of experience as a tough guy.

Another thing that marked Carpenter out as a filmmaker, but which made him seem increasingly out of place in modern Hollywood, is his care in evoking a sense of milieu and situating his heroes as a part of an ordinary world. Often, they’re blue collar dudes and ladies, included by accident in greater machinations. Big Trouble commences with an opening that gives a fine sense of Burton as both a bit of a blowhard, ranting on the radio before cramming a giant hoagie in his mouth, but also as a cool guy. After delivering a load of produce to a market in San Francisco, he sits down to gamble with the mostly Asian porters and buyers, including his old friend Wang Chi, a self-made restaurateur. Carpenter doesn’t need a word of dialogue to show us who Burton, Wang, and the rest are: normal people doing real things and relaxing in a normal way, the sort of things nobody does in modern action blockbusters except in the most laboriously signposted fashions. The only remarkable moment is a challenge between Wang and Jack. Wang, who’s just lost all the money he’d saved up for a lavish welcome back from China for his fiancée, bets Jack double or nothing he can split a beer bottle in half with a meat cleaver. He fails, and Jack catches the bottle, which shoots across the table at him, proving he has brilliant reflexes. That’s a classic piece of establishing a hero’s gifts, but it’s a promise the film deliberately, hilariously delays fulfilling.

Jack recompenses Wang by taking him to pick up said fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), from the airport, where Jack eyes Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), a civil rights lawyer. She’s trying to shepherd immigrant Tara (Min Luong) safely past a waiting coterie of thugs from a Chinatown street gang on the lookout for girls to kidnap and force into prostitution. When the goons snatch Tara, Jack confronts them, only to be quickly toppled; the thugs take Miao Yin instead. Jack and Wang chase them to Chinatown, where they’re caught in the middle of a battle between the evil Wing Kong triad, and the good-guy Chang Sing gang, who are having the funeral procession for a leader and are ambushed by their enemies. The Chang Sing’s retaliation proves effective until the intervention of the Three Storms—Thunder (Carter Wong), Lightning (James Pax), and Rain (Peter Kwong)—bizarre beings that seem to have supernatural powers. The Storms slaughter the Chang Sings where they stand. When Jack tries to escape this melee by driving his truck through it, he seems to run down a tall, regally dressed man whom Wang thinks might be David Lo Pan (James Hong), the legendary head of the Wing Kong. Lo Pan seems unhurt by Jack’s truck, and rays of blinding light shoot from his eyes and mouth.

 

Jack soon learns that he and Wang have stumbled into the middle of a metaphysical battle of good and evil. Working with Gracie, whose knowledge of Chinatown’s criminal dealings is great, Jack infiltrates the White Tiger, a brothel where sex slaves are bought and sold, to find Miao Yin. Unfortunately, she’s snatched away by the Three Storms and taken to the underground lair of Lo Pan. He proves to be a 2,000-year-old soldier and magician, cursed by the gods for his offences, who is really a fleshless spirit desperately in search of a girl with green eyes he can marry to end his curse. Miao Yin fits the bill. Jack and Wang’s efforts to find her in Lo Pan’s headquarters prove a comic disaster until they manage to escape and free a number of captive women. But Gracie is left in the hands of Lo Pan and when he proves that both she and Miao Yin can survive the rituals for testing his brides, he plans to marry both, sacrificing one and keeping the other to be his companion as he conquers the universe. Wang and Jack are aided in their quest by Gracie’s journalist friend Margo Lane (Kate Burton), Wang’s debonair maitre d’ Eddie (Donald Li), the Chang Sings, and general-purpose sorcerer and tour guide Egg Shen (Victor Wong).

 

The quality of Big Trouble that sets it apart from many similar ’80s films and makes it tantalizingly hard to describe is the fluent ease with which it shifts between genres and tones: a giddy succession of swerves from slapstick to melodrama; Howard Hawksian verbal byplay; Tsui Hark wire-fu shenanigans; comic book hoot; resonant, sexually and mystically mysterious epic. Carpenter’s shift into action-oriented fare after mostly making horror movies, in which control of mood, atmosphere, and story progression are key assets, saw him assay Big Trouble with a contiguous grace that eludes most physically dynamic movies where a motion rush becomes paramount. Big Trouble’s atmosphere is tangible, as the heroes perform the gleeful boyish fantasy of taking a turn down just the right side street and being plunged into an adventure.

 

Under the surface effervescence, another strength of Big Trouble is that unlike most subsequent fantasy and East-West fusions, Carpenter captures, and even builds upon, the mystical weirdness that infuses much wuxia filmmaking. This is clear in images like Lo Pan transforming from his flaccid old guise into young ghost and passing through walls, and when Jack and the Chang Sing warriors follow Egg Shen down a fire pole into a subterranean shadow world where monsters lurk and the “black blood of the Earth” flows. The references to Chinese mythology alternate wryness with wistful seriousness, and Carpenter’s music score communicates a spacey, almost haunting underpinning to the adventure – the fact that many Hong Kong films of the same period sported synthesizer-dominated scores like Carpenter’s increases the likeness.

James Hong as Lo Pan is an evergreen surprise. Generally known for playing gaunt, cagey ciphers, a la his role as the guardian of dark secrets in Chinatown, Hong presents Lo Pan as alternately the dirtiest of old men when he’s in his corporeal shell of withered leathery flesh, swearing and teasing Gracie with insidious delight, and a weirdly beautiful supernatural master in his classical garb and make-up, appealing to the unconscious Miao Yin with poetic cadence and quivering with frustrated desire. Such flourishes makes Lo Pan a far deeper kind of villain than the usual run, and Hong’s intuitively perfect performance struck such a deep chord with the actor that he directed a film, The Vineyard (1989), that reiterates aspects of this film’s plot. Lo Pan gets his comeuppance, eventually, but that’s really the throwaway end to a grandiose fight. Carpenter even makes fun of the usually epic deaths of supernatural villains by having Lo Pan succumb to the simplest of implements, with his great collection of plaster buddhas spontaneously collapsing like dominos, as if the gods are marking the passing of a great if evil force. Carpenter’s filming of the preceding fight is a source of constant delight to me, with a comic-book-like clarity of action displayed in the way Carpenter offers frames that are cut in half by swords or crisscrossed by battling opponents swooping from one edge to the other. Such stylistic rigor, light years away from the happenstance gibberish seen in so many recent action films, gives a sense of the physical space, combined with the rapidity of the editing and the dynamism of the stuntmen, in what is still a master class for this sort of thing. Whatever Big Trouble’s failures as a revenue earner, it was a big triumph as entertainment, and I still love it.

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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And you thought 9-11 was tough try this: Escape from New York (1981).

I was watching an episode of American Dad today which made some references to a futuristic Armageddon world and then it came to me: John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981).  This flick has it all: a great cast Kurt Russell as “Snake Plissken,” Lee Van Cleef  as “Bob Hauk,” Ernest Borgnine as “Cabbie,” Isaac Hayes as “The Duke of New York City,” and Adrienne Barbeau as “Maggie.” This quality continues as the movie has a futuristic Sci-Fi story, suspense, humans sacrificing themselves and a cult like following.  Why haven’t I looked at this one sooner?  Who the hell knows but here we go!

In the “near future” Manhattan is turned into a free for all prison.  The island is surrounded by a fifty foot wall and all bridges leading in and out are heavily mined.  Needless to say the dystopian society that has evolved inside the walls is cruel and unforgiving.  Road Warrior like gangs roam the streets looking for prey or carrion to feast on with an assortment of weapons and whatever machines they can keep running (like Ernest Borgnine’s taxi).  As prisoners are being processed before being dumped into this hell they are given the opportunity to be terminated immediately rather than face the chaos.

 

Enter Snake Plissken, a one-eyed ex-special forces soldier caught robbing the federal reserve who is about to serve the rest of his days in New York.  Alas, Air Force 1 is forced to crash.  The President survived thanks to some sort of escape pod but he is stuck in New York.  How do we know the president survives?  The Duke sends one of his fingers to the authorities to confirm it.  Snake cuts a deal with Hauk that if he can get the President out of New York within 24 hours he will get a full pardon.  Oh and by the way there is a cassette tape that contains important information on nuclear fusion that he has to get too.  By the time Plissken has reluctantly agreed, Hauk has him injected with microscopic explosives that will rupture his carotid arteries once the 24 hours are up.  Even cooler is that the explosives can only be defused during the last 15 minutes before they detonate, ensuring that Snake does not abandon his mission, or find another way to remove them.  If he returns with the President and the tape in time Hauk will save him.  As he should, Snake promises to kill Hauk when he returns.

 

Snake slips in atop the World Trade Center in a glider, and locates the escape pod.  He follows the President’s life-monitor bracelet signal to the basement of a theater, only to find it on the wrist of an old man.  Snake then runs into a friendly inmate nicknamed “Cabbie” (Ernest Borgnine), who offers to help and takes him to see Harold the “Brain” Hellman, a well-educated inmate who has made the New York Public Library his personal fortress.  It turns out that Brain and Snake are old buddies from some heists they pulled in the past.  Brain tells Snake that the self-proclaimed “Duke of New York” (Isaac Hayes), the terrifying leader of the largest and most powerful gang in Manhattan, has the President and plans to lead a mass escape across the mined and heavily guarded 69th Street Bridge by using the President as a human shield.  How much cooler can things get?  Well when the Duke unexpectedly arrives for a diagram of the bridge’s land mines, Snake forces Brain and his girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) to lead him back to the Duke’s place f/k/a Grand Central Station.  Snake finds the President being held in a railroad car but is not able to rescue him and he is captured by the Duke’s cronies.

Brain and Maggie trick the Duke’s men into letting them have access to the President and after killing the guards, they free the President and flee to Snake’s radical glider.  When the Duke learns the President has escaped with Brain, he loses his mind and rounds up his gang to chase them down and kill them.  Snake manages to slip away and catches up with Brain, Maggie and the President at the glider, but during their attempted getaway, a gang of inmates push the glider off the building.  Is there another way out?  Yes, Snake and the others find Cabbie, and Snake gets behind the wheel before heading for the bridge.  When Cabbie reveals that he has the nuclear fusion tape, the President demands it, but Snake takes it.

 

Being pursued by the Duke, Snake and the others drive over the mine infested bridge.  After the taxi hits a land mine, the cab is destroyed and Cabbie is dead.  As the others make a run for it Brain is killed by a mine and Maggie won’t leave him.  She wants revenge on the Duke and shoots at him with a revolver—to no avail as the Duke smashes Maggie and his car.  Snake and the President reach the containment wall and the guards raise the President up on a cable drawn from a Jeep mounted winch. Snake sees the Duke approaching and attacks him from behind but only after the Duke blows away the two guards with a machine gun Snake lost to the Duke when he was captured.  Knowing time is running out Snake nails the Duke in the head and makes his move for the cable.  Halfway up the wall, the cable stops and the President fatally shoots the Duke.  Snake is then lifted to safety, and the explosives implanted in his body are deactivated with mere seconds to spare.

After Snake gains his signed pardon from Hauk, Hauk offers Snake a job, to which Snake merely starts walking away. As Snake continues walking out of the prison parking deck area, Hauk asks Snake if he is going to kill him. Snake replies, “I’m too tired… maybe later.” Snake, still walking away, pulls the magnetic tape out of the cassette containing the information on nuclear fusion as he leaves.

 

Wow!

 

What else can I say?  Great movie.

 

Here is some comedy.  Where did they decide to shoot this movie needing gritty decaying buildings?  Where else can you find hell on earth but East St. Louis!  I always thought East St. Louis’s reputation was urban lore, but apparently I was wrong.  See http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=6&ved=0CCsQtwIwBQ&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DtWMFsXwpToA&ei=TFYiTv2EE4ajtgfq-rijAw&usg=AFQjCNGqe9vUGdn7wG7-W4ioFYfWfAPKMA&sig2=UoFKCPSfyE_TncCaurkPsA.

 

The movie was also a great commercial success—it had a budget of six million dollars and grossed about fifty million worldwide.  Nice work as usual Mr. Carpenter.  They sure don’t make them like this anymore.

 
5 Comments

Posted by on July 16, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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