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BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA

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Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong
Director: John Carpenter
Audio: Dolby Digital 4.1, DTS Surround, Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 99 Minutes
Release Date: May 22, 2001

“Ok, you people! Sit tight, hold the fort and keep the home fires burning. If we’re not back by dawn…call the president.”

Film ***1/2

Sometimes, if you don’t find yourself willing to suspend any disbelief, then you’ve missed the point of the entertainment value. No other movie is better proof of this fact than John Carpenter’s totally over-the-top and out of the ordinary Big Trouble in Little China. It’s not everyday that a movie comes along which includes kung fu, science fiction, comedy, monsters, and pure out-there fantasy all wrapped into one movie, but Carpenter managed to pull it off with a movie which didn’t find its audience in its theatrical release, but has since then gone on to become an instant cult classic, like many Carpenter flicks. Now that it has finally arrived on DVD, fans of such recent martial arts hits as The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can reflect on, or experience for the first time, a movie from the 80s which includes some uniquely staged fight sequences that may have inspired those movies.

The movie also marked the fourth collaboration between Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell, who for my money gives one of his most memorable performances as truck driver Jack Burton, who could also be classified as a John Wayne wannabe. What I really appreciate about this over the top performance is the fact that Russell and Carpenter both agreed to create a character with heroic appeal, but who wasn’t exactly a hundred percent on the brain. The plot of the movie involves Jack and his friend Wang (Dennis Dun) pursuing the ladder’s potential wife, who is abducted at the airport where they attempt to meet her. The duo’s pursuit soon leads them into a dark, seedy side of San Francisco Chinatown, which is flooded with ninjas dressed up in ancient attire, and ruled by powerful kung fu lords who seem to possess some sort of mystical power within them. Jack and Wang, being the super tough guys that they are, don’t plan on backing down without a serious fight to the finish.

I somewhat doubt that the screen will ever display a hero like Jack Burton again. This is because Burton is a complete buffoon, and heroes tend to want to be written with pure courage and strength for the actors. Russell ad-libbed a lot of his dialogue, throwing in the hysterical John Wayne sound to his dialect. To me, a hero as silly and incompetent as Burton is a warm welcome, especially for a movie that’s pleasantly and knowingly absurd as this one.

The fight scenes are nothing short of astonishing. In a fantasy movie like this in which anything goes, anything and everything is done in the execution of the action scenes. In the last battle scene, for example, a stunt is performed where two men leap simultaneously, with ninja swords in their hands, dueling to the death while in the air. Call it over the top, but it’s a glorious shot and a winning moment.

Call it cornball, call it cheesy, or call it exciting, go for broke excitement, which is the exact label I give Big Trouble in Little China. John Carpenter and Kurt Russell have proven to be team that can be counted on, and this movie is vital proof.

Video ****

Fans have long awaited the day this movie would make it to DVD, and it’s good to know that Fox is the distributor, because they are simply unbeatable when it comes to transfers, especially when it happens to be a 2 disc set. The video job on Big Trouble in Little China is of true Fox quality. I never saw the movie in the theaters, so until now, I was only reduced to seeing the pan and scan version on video and television, so seeing the movie in widescreen was a real treat. Fox has given 15 year old movie a bold, crisp, anamorphic look, with no grain or any flaws included in the entire presentation. Vital proof that Fox is one step ahead of the competition.

Audio ****

Quick note: the box claims to have a 5.1 Dolby Digital track, but according to the menu screen, both it and the DTS track are presented in 4.1 surround sound, but the result is still a spectacular sounding disc. The score by John Carpenter is heard for most of the movie, and its presence is felt in this presentation. The action sequences pick up extraordinarily well, too, complete with side speakers and back up speakers picking up numerous sounds of fighting and swordplay. A knockout job that only Fox could’ve successfully pulled off in my book.

Features ****

If it’s a 2 disc set and it’s from Fox, you can be sure to expect the very best of extras, which in this case will please the many fans of this cult classic. Included on disc one is a wonderful commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, which is filled many humorous moments much like the commentary the two did for The Thing. My favorite moment is when Carpenter says to Russell, “This is one of my favorite performances from you, of course my favorite of those is still Captain Ron”, which garners a huge laugh from Russell. They also reflect on how poorly the film did in theaters, thanks most in part to poor marketing, as well as the decisions made in the development of Russell’s character. It’s a track that is truly worthy of a DMC award for best commentary.

Disc 2 contains many more extras, including a gallery of trailers and TV spots, including of all things a pay-per-view advertisement, which I didn’t know existed back in the 80s. Also featured is a featurette, a deleted scenes compilation, an extended ending sequence, an interview with effects creator Richard Edlund, several archived magazine articles chronicling the initial release of the movie, and a music video for the title song by The Coupe De Villes, which from the looks of it has John Carpenter on lead vocals trying to sound a lot like Elvis; quite interesting to look at.

Both discs also include some breathtakingly done menu screens which will no doubt be remembered at the end of the year.

Summary:

Big Trouble in Little China is a big bang-for-your-buck action fantasy extravaganza, as is the custom of John Carpenter. You’ll either love it or hate it, but either way, you can’t ignore the top of the line quality of this DVD, which is one of Fox’s best all around releases ever.

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