Monday, August 15, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Big Trouble in Little China" (1986)

A goofy doof of a movie -- part martial arts flick, part fantasy, a little bit Western, a lot '80s -- "Big Trouble in Little China" damaged a lot of careers in the short run, but made a lot of long-term fans. Now a remake starring Dwayne "Don't Call Me The Rock... OK, You Can Call Me The Rock" Johnson is in the works.

I remember my friends just raving about the movie when we were in high school, but somehow I never got around to seeing it. I'm a mite disappointed now that I have. While amusing at times, it looks like a cheap and schlocky flick that can't quite decide if it's in on the joke or not.

It's best to take it as a silly send-up of different genres, a fun adventure undertaken for its own sake. The scary stuff is never very scary, unlike, say, the Indiana Jones movies, which preserved the horror elements of its throwback inspiration. I make that connection because this film, like others from the era such as "King Solomon's Mines" and "High Road to China," were clearly thematic imitators.

This tone is set by Kurt Russell, who's playing a prototypical 1980s cinematic action hero -- muscle-y and smirking -- yet is continually sabotaged by comedic imperatives.

For instance, he waltzes into the inner sanctum of the villain near the end to deliver a typical defiant "go to hell" speech -- except his face is covered in bright pink lipstick, having finally gotten that kiss from The Girl. Or, at the start of the massive final brawl between the good and evil gangs, he shoots a chunk out of the ceiling and gets conked on the head, and goes sleepy-time.

Indeed, the film's enduring achievement is featuring a bunch of actors of Asian descent with a generic white guy figurehead as protagonist. 

Originally conceived as a Western by fledgling screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, the story was completely redone by W.D. Richter at the behest of the studio and director John Carpenter, who wanted a modern setting (and a lower budget). There was quite a tussle over credits, with the rookies ultimately getting the screenwriting nod, while Richter got an "adapted by" credit and Carpenter, who made his own alterations, received nothing.

Carpenter was just coming off one of the finest directing runs of popular entertainment movies in Hollywood history -- "Halloween," "Elvis," "Escape from New York," "The Thing," "Christine" -- and the commercial failure of "Big Trouble" laid his career low. He's sort of bobbled on the edges ever since, an admired icon associated with the indie/horror field, but couldn't get his mainstream projects greenlit.

The plot is essentially one long chase, and takes place in very close to real time.

Russell plays Jack Burton, driver of a tractor-trailer hauling pigs which he dubs the "Pork Chop Express." He likes to ride around and yammer away on the CB radio to anyone who'll listen, stories about his life and pronunciations of his creed. He's a wanderer with friends in every port of call.

Among them is Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), a young Chinese immigrant who runs a restaurant in San Francisco's Little China. He's excited because his betrothed,  Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), is arriving from his homeland for their wedding. She's got green eyes, which are highly prized by the Chinese (at least in the movie's telling). This is the only attribute the screenplay bothers to give her, barely speaking or emoting throughout the film.

Here jade peepers raise the attention of David Lo Pan (James Hong), an ancient and evil sorcerer who's been relegated to a ghost-like existence due to an old curse. He needs to marry, then murder a green-eyed woman to lift it. It's never made clear why he wants to become mortal again, since he's essentially invulnerable to attack.

Of course, I've never been withheld from a woman's gentle touch for 2,000 years. (Even if it sometimes felt like it.)

Leading the forces of good is Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a crotchety and benevolent magician. His favorite trick is throwing little balls of light that blow up his enemies. Kim Cattrall plays Gracie Law, a white attorney who often defends Chinese clients, and gets sucked up in to the action and, inevitably, tossed into Jack's arms. Turns out she has green eyes, too, so Lo Pan decides to go for a twofer.

Neither actress actually had green eyes, so they had to wear uncomfortable 1980s colored contact lenses during production. Also, if the bride doesn't need to be Chinese, I'm not sure why it took Lo Pan two millennia to find a woman.

There's also a reporter (Kate Burton) and best friend (Donald Li) who really serve no purpose in the story, and are conveniently forgotten about for long stretches of the film.

Lining up on the bad side are Lo Pan's three main henchman, all gifted with super powers tied to the elements. Thunder (Carter Wong) is all muscle and snarling attitude; Rain (Peter Kwong) is the resident swordsman and pretty boy; Lightning (James Pax) can project energy and even levitate. All three of them wear oddball straw hats that literally cover them down to the neck; one wonders how they fight effectively without having to tilt their heads.

Lo Pan also has a beholder-like creature, a circular blob with eyes and little tentacles, that acts as his scout. It's a cheap-looking and silly effect, even for 1986.

In general you can say that about the entire film. Other than one big set-piece for Lo Pan's sanctum santorum, which has some impressive statues, the whole movie looks like it was shot on a back lot. Most of the characters don't even change clothes. One battle has Wang dueling in the air with Rain, and it's an embarrassing collection of obvious wire shots and tilted cameras.

Compared to the elegant swordplay of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," it's positively archaic.

The budget for "Big Trouble" was $20 million, hardly chump change at the time -- about $44 million in today's dollars, but this was before the era of gonzo-sized budgets even for special effects spectacles. Consider that the magnificent "Aliens," which came out the same year, cost $2 million less.

An overpriced mess, this film doesn't even deserve the cult status it has today.

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