So here you are, John Carpenter, right? No really, just go with me on this one.
You make a couple of films in the 1970s, straight out of college, and they do ... okay.
That is to say, they do okay after the fact. Lots of critical acclaim but no one seems to notice until after the movies have been in art house theaters and on TV some years later. Penniless and trying to make ends meet, you whip up a cheapo flick starring nobodies and one character actor with a lackluster career. BAM! You've got HALLOWEEN and, though it didn't make much money at the theaters, it cost even less to make, so the sucker is profitable.
But here is the thing: The movie is out of the theater houses while people are still talking about it. The talk grows. Nobody can see the damn thing but the talk grows. The majority of the buying public on the earth don't have VCRs in 1978. The few that do have beta machines which only play for one hour and then you pop in another tape. The idea of video renting is being tossed about but it won't be until 1981 when it really comes into its own.
In the meantime your HALLOWEEN film is busting all over the art house theaters and making you squat. Happy investors though. Happy enough to fund HALLOWEEN II.
So you make it. People flock to it, it makes more money than the first one, yet people moan and groan about how it's not as good. So you make THE FOG. You make THE THING, you make movie after movie and every damn time the story is the same. They do anywhere from mediocre to crash and burn at the box office, only to become legends after the run is over.
And legends don't get rich: They just get talked about.
So let me say up front that John Carpenter is one of my favorite movie directors of all time. Yet my favorite movies from him are in his 1970s - 1980s period. I haven't liked a damn thing he has made in the 1990s on up - just like Cronenberg, another favorite of mine. Is it because I got old and outgrew his films?
Nope. Because I still love those old ones. Like BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, for example.
This is a Horror film that has it all. Or maybe it's a Romantic Comedy that has it all. Then again, it could be an action flick that has it all, or even a martial arts flick that has it all. Or perhaps it's just a fantasy flick that has it all. Why, it could even be a...
"So we mix it up. Take what we want and leave the rest. Like your salad bar."
In the world of film making, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is the Chinese buffet of movies.
It starts out after the fact. All hell broke loose in China Town and a man named Egg Shen (Victor Wong: John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS, TREMORS) is talking to his lawyer. The fiend (lawyer) is trying to keep his client out of trouble by striking a deal. "Give us the whereabouts of Jack Burton."
Egg won't budge. A debt of honor and gratitude are owed Jack (Kurt Russell: John Carpenter's THE THING, John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, DEATH PROOF). So the film starts in the past (like all good Chinese legends) beginning with Jack the truck driver, hauling his 18 wheeler into San Francisco and China Town. Jack's rig is called the Pork Chop Express, because he delivers live pigs to the markets. Jack yaps on his Citizen's Band radio, unmindful and uncaring if anyone is listening or not. He throws his voice out into the night like a young, blowhard Art Bell, letting the sound fall where it may. Jack's idea of free speech is very Zen.
After the delivery and a few games of chance with his Chinese friends, he finds himself playing chauffuer to his edgy pal, Wang Lee (Dennis Dunn: John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS). They go to the airport to pick up Wang's fiance, Maio Yin (Suzee Pai), fresh from the mainland, who he hasn't seen in 5 years. Some pretty boy gangsta scum come around looking for trouble and Merry Mishaps occur.This movie is legendary for being the first and probably only Hollywood movie to employ pretty much every Chinese/American actor alive at the time. Then they imported a few from Hong Kong and China!
Jack is us, an outsider to his own comfortable world: Chinatown. His job is here and he's loyal to his money. His friends are here and he's loyal to them. But what he's about to see will turn his whole point of view on Chinatown upside down.
China has had dynastic rule that measures in the thousands of years. No other country comes close. Even modern day Chinese communism is hardcore loyal to the way the old emperors ruled and maintain that tyranny to this day, even if they call it something else. So there is an awful lot of history there, passed down more by word of mouth than writing.
"The Chinese have a lot of Hells."
Enter into this mindset the form of one David Lo Pan: Wealthy merchant and feared crime lord. A man so private that no one has seen him in 20 years. What we soon discover is that David Lo Pan (James Hong: GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS!, COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, BLADE RUNNER, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL ) is actually the Chinese Demon Spirit Lo Pan. A cursed human of no flesh who wanders the world as a dream: a nightmare.
But this nightmare can lift his curse and become flesh again if he marries a very special woman: a woman with green eyes. But green eyes are not enough. For she must also be able to survive "The Burning Blade" and "Tame the Savage Heart". Only a woman who embodies all of these qualities can appease Lo Pan's God and lift his curse. When this onus was put on Lo Pan in ancient times, it was considered an impossible mission.
"Chinese girls don't come with green eyes."
After over 2,000 years of waiting and suffering (of course demons suffer! They're in hell! Duh!), Lo Pan is willing to cheat to influence outcomes. He's vicious, mean, crusty, crabby, murderous, villainous, but at the same time, pitiful.
"I'm not about to wait another two thousand years!"
Jack Burton is a laconic, likable, big mouth with an "Ash" attitude. This Duke Nukem machismo would probably work if he was John Wayne. Unfortunately, Jack is more bluster than business. Though he's adequately buff, he's also naive, klutzy and a nimrod. He leaps into trouble without plan or strategy, thinks the world will work the way he imagines, and finds himself frequently caught short when real life hits him repeatedly between the eyes. Jack thinks he's the hero but he isn't, and often finds himself being saved as much as he does any saving.
"It's all in the reflexes."
His pal/partner is a hyper martial arts expert who, when he's not threatening to take someone's life, is frenzedly running like hell to save his own.
Enter into this mix a white girl lawyer (yes, this film has two of them!), Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall: SPLIT SECOND), who hangs out in China Town trying to bring American justice and freedom to a people who don't want a busy-body caucasian nosing around in their multi-millennia years old trouble where she doesn't belong. Then add another white girl (yes, this film has two of them); Margo (Kate Burton: SWIMFAN, STAY) a struggling reporter trying to get her big story, big break, and the only potential interracial love interest in the flick (China Town don't need white guys come sniffing around after their women and Jack can't fathom women of his own culture, let alone a strange one).
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is wacked out, ribald, hilarious, serious, dramatic, horrific, tense, suspenseful, inane, slapstick and satirical, and all without being insulting to any race or belief. Let's see anyone else BUT John Carpenter do that!
Seriously. It's 2002 and nobody has!
I've seen this movie more times than I've counted. If it comes on TV while I'm flipping through channels I'll stop and watch it right through. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is more fun than funny, with exposition that is cheeseball enough to sink it in the hands of a lesser director. But John Carpenter was savvy enough to understand the difference between cheesy and funky.
Without a single wink and nod to the audience or one lame-o topical reference (which really age a film like nothing else), John made a movie that stands up nearly 20 years later. He did this with rapid machine gun fire exposition and straight delivery. The cornier the line, the straighter it's delivered. Thus, the more appealing it is.
"We have one of our best men in there right now: Stirring the pot!"
What's more, because the movie starts out as a foregone conclusion, we are in the right frame of mind even when this movie is shown 1,000 years from now. We already know it took place in the past.
Some of the SFX are great. Some are mind bogglingly camp. It's all in keeping with the spirit of the film. Kudos for some of the effects go to Richard Edlund (THE MANITOU, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, GHOST BUSTERS, POLTERGIEST, FRIGHT NIGHT, GHOST, SPECIES, ALIEN³).
Not to be outdone is costume designer April Ferry (CHILD'S PLAY, LEVIATHAN, DONNIE DARKO, FRAILTY), who gives us the flavor and belief in an Ancient Chinese curse living in the U.S., and a micro-culture compressed into a typical U.S. city with ways and laws still influenced by the Motherland.
Getting back to the start of this review: The problem that John has is that it takes years for his movies to be recognized as truly great, innovative films. People were writing articles about Dark Star ten years later in 1985. HALLOWEEN was still getting its due ten years later in 1988. THE THING, from 1982, is only now being truly recognized (2002 sees a cool computer game based on John's version of Joseph W. Campbell's story). When your fate is history always exonerating your art, what do you care what a reviewer like me thinks of your latest (I trashed GHOSTS OF MARS)? In 10 years I'll probably change my tune (though I doubt it. I still haven't changed my mind about his yawn inducing, THE FOG).
But I digress. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is one of John's all time best! Go into it understanding from the start that Sorcerers will battle. Damsel's will be distressed. Spirits will come alive in magnificent performances by Thunder (Carter Wong: SHAO LIN XIONG DI), a wild eyed Wind (Peter Kwong), and Rain (James Pax aka James Pak: THE HEROIC TRIO). A good time will be had by all. Unless you're a heartless fiend. Or a lawyer.
There is so much going on with this film that to describe it well is the same as reading the whole script to you. So take my advice (if you trust it!) and rent or buy one of John Carpenter's finest! BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA!
Five Shriek Girls.
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