Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter, 1986)

When I first saw Big Trouble in Little China, it would have been as a rental from my local video store The Ritz in Burnley. I’m going to guess it was either 1991 or 1992. At this time, children across the UK had been gripped by Turtle Power and, if you were really lucky, you might also have a home video games console with a copy of Street Fighter II. Martial arts were a hot property, and re-watching this film I can see what the immediate appeal was.

Less than ten minutes in we’re treated to a large-scale Kung Fu gang fight. As the film progresses, the battles become more over-the-top, with characters flying, using impressive magic, attacking our heroes with lightning and telekinesis and then there’s the unforgettably dread-inducing lazer eyes. It’s the live-action version of all your favourite parts of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II, the film that neither franchise managed to pull off. It just keeps getting better and better and I can well see how amazing that would have seemed to my 8-year-old self.

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The story itself is a little confused. It kicks off with an office scene where the Chinese bus driver Egg Shen (played by Victor Wong) is sat telling his lawyer that Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) was a “real hero”. In the extras we learn that Carpenter was forced to make this addition as the studio wanted Kurt Russell to be the sole main hero. As the film plays out though it is quite obvious that he’s the sidekick to Wang Chi’s cause (played by Dennis Dun). It is his girlfriend we are following the kidnapping and attempted rescue of, not Burton’s. Indeed Burton’s eventual love interest Gracie Law, played by a young Kim Cattrall, is part of the rescue party. In my opinion it’s a shame that the studio forced this change as it’s quite a bold move to cast a reasonably famous Caucasian actor as a sidekick to a Chinese lead star. As much as I’d love to see it recut, I don’t think it will ever happen.

The visual effects are to be applauded. I’m used to watching B-Movies, especially those made in the 1980s when people were getting creative with very low budgets. I am quite good at using my imagination to compensate for any subsequent substandard segments, especially if the director’s ambition is evident. Yet there was no concessions required here. There are several monster costumes that stand out as both unique and memorable. The electric storm effects and lazer effects both deliver as well. It doesn’t seem to have aged at all, much less so than some of John Carpenter’s efforts from the 1990s (and yes I’m looking directly at 1995’s Village of the Damned there).

And there lies another pleasant surprise. I had no idea this was a John Carpenter film. I watched it too early to remember either the actor playing the lead character or even the lead character’s name itself. I was never going to commit the director’s name to memory. It was great to realise a legend of cinema was on the reigns and it reassured me that it was indeed a high quality film.

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A word on the package. The version I’m reviewing is the Arrow 2014 Blu-ray re-release. The transfer is unbelievable. The bonus features on the release cover every angle you could possibly want. You’ve got commentary from Russell and Carpenter, trailers, an alternative extended ending. There are extensive interviews with the cast and crew. There’s a short documentary about the stuntmen. Even the menu page looks astounding. I know this is typical of Arrow releases but it’s reassuring that this is the first thing you see and you know a lot of care has gone into covering every aspect of the user experience.

So if you’re needing an 80s nostalgia hit and you’ve worn out your cheap Goonies DVD, try this one instead. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

Big Trouble in Little China is out now on a Blu-ray and DVD dual format package from Arrow Video in the UK.

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