Big Trouble In Little China

Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Kurt Russell, Victor Wong, James Hong, Danny Dun
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Deleted Scenes, Alternate Ending, Special Effects Interview, Music Video, Trailers and TV Spots, and much more...

Although it represents one of cult director John Carpenter’s most underrated and under-appreciated movies, his homage to Hong Kong cinema, "Big Trouble In Little China" has an incredibly committed fan following, all of which are eagerly looking forward to this 2-disc Special Edition DVD that Fox is serving up here. A fan of the "Pork-Chop Express" myself, I was very excited when this disc finally showed up on my desk and decided to give it a spin to see how it turned out.

Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is a truck-driver with a fast mouth. Finally back home, after a long tour, he plays a game of Mahjong with some of his friends in Chinatown and… wins! Sadly, his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) can’t pay up immediately, though, and to top things off, he asks Jack for a favor, before going to pick up the money. His fiancé is arriving from mainland China, and Wang wants to pick her up at the airport. But before they can meet Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), she is kidnapped by members of a street gang. Jack and Wang are determined to rescue here and enter the lion’s den, deep in the heart of Chinatown. Before they know it however, they find themselves in the middle of a gang war that rages openly in the back alleys of Chinatown, when suddenly three ethereal warriors appear. Seemingly indestructible, Wang and Jack barely manage to escape the massacre, only to run into Lo Pan (James Hong), a mythical man, who is believed to have lived fro 200 years under a curse of eternal life!

Lo Pan is the one who had Miao Yin kidnapped for her green eyes. To lift his curse, he needs the green-eyed girl to marry him, and to sacrifice her to placate the Gods, but all this is way over Jack Burton’s head. He has his own way of dealing with ancient Chinese myths, legends and demons… and yet, even he needs the help of Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a local small-time sorcerer.

"Big Trouble In Little China" is full of great moments and the fact that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, only adds to the flavor of the movie. However, you definitely need the right mindset for this flick. It is not a real martial arts film, and it is not a straight-comedy or a pure action film. It is an amalgam of all these elements, spiced up with a lot of Hong Kong movie elements. Some things in the film are really far out, but to me, it is what makes it such a charming and unique experience. The characters are very intriguing, the dialogues witty and humorous, the story propels itself forward at a good pace and the beautiful cinematography is among the best of all of John Carpenter’s movies.

Sadly, the movie is very isunderstood and under-appreciated, in part because Fox never really know how to market this film at the box office. Since then it has fortunately gathered a cult following who cherish the film for what it is. A plain fun and action adventure with some wicked ideas.

These days we have come to expect nothing but the best from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and once again this DVD does not disappoint. Featuring a great <$PS,widescreen> transfer of the movie in a <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> transfer, let me assure you that this film has never looked better than on this DVD. The print is absolutely clean and not a single mar seems to distract from the viewing experience, although there seem to be restoration artifacts on a very few occasions. John Carpenter’s color palette is extremely important in this film as it is used to convey the mystical Chinese atmosphere that carries the entire film. From the electric sparks in Lightning, the neon signs that illuminate dank back alleys to Suzee Pai’s jade-green eyes, every hue and shade is perfectly reproduced in this transfer, making "Big Trouble In Little China" a glorious experience to behold. Blacks are very deep, giving the image plenty of visual depth and dimensionality, while shadows are always well delineated and maintain a good level of detail. This picture is bold with contrast and awash with colors, and I daresay that you have to see "Big Trouble In Little China" on this DVD to finally appreciate its complete visual glory. The compression is flawless and not single compression artifact is in sight anywhere on this disc.

In the audio department, "Big Trouble In Little China" is no less staggering. The DVD contains a newly remixed 4.1 <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track, as well as a <$DTS,DTS> track. Although presented in a <$5.1,5.1 mix>, the DTS track is identical to the 4.1 Dolby Digital track but feeds the mono surround channel as two discrete, identical channels, to the receiver. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of these tracks, although it is still somewhat noticeable that it is a remix. Surrounds are used mostly to enhance the ambience of the sound field, and are not very aggressive. Only in a handful of instances will you truly notice aggressive surround effects, but the stereo field is used to great effect. Nonetheless, the surrounds add a lot of dimension to the mix providing an added layer of ambience. The dynamic range of the track is very good and the frequency response of the tracks is natural sounding. The low end of the spectrum is never over-emphasized as in many contemporary films, but nonetheless well present with good LFE presence at times, building a solid aural foundation for the film. The high ends are very clear and dialogues are perfectly mixed in, never being drowned out by the sound effects or the music.

The disc also comes with a newly recorded <$commentary,audio commentary>, featuring John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. As was the case in previous tracks the two recorded together, this <$commentary,commentary track> is an entertaining and informative treasure trove that fans will cherish for years to come. Much like their comments on "The Thing," the two are noticeably enthusiastic about the film and the ability to talk about it so freely. Many anecdotes, potshots and a wealth of valuable and insightful information are conveyed in this track, making it an invaluable addition to this DVD that you do not want to miss.

On the second disc of the package you will find a series of other extras, such as the 10-minute featurette, "The Making of Big Trouble In Little China." It is an interesting featurette, although its contents do not go beyond the typical promotional pieces found on DVDs so very often. It contains on-set interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and tries to convey some "glamorous" facts, so to say.

A series of deleted scenes is also part of this second disc, including an extended ending of the movie. Most of these scenes are alternate takes or longer versions of scenes in the film, and it is relatively obvious why they were excised from the final film. They would have slowed down the furious momentum the movie manages to build. While it is great to see these versions, I am sure no one will argue that they were rightfully dropped to the cutting room floor. Interestingly, though, I found the alternate ending quite interesting and could indeed see it in the actual movie.

One of the greatest features on the DVD is a 16-minute video interview with special effects director Richard Edlund. The way it is presented is very interesting, as it offers the viewer the chance to determine what he wants to see using multiple-angles. The first video stream contains Edlund’s on-camera interview with a small window on the side showing what he is talking about. On the second angle you can see the content of that window in full-screen mode while the interview continues. Edlund covers many of the film’s special effects, ranging from the creatures to the many effects used to bring Lo Pan to life.

Long-time readers of the magazine "Cinefex" may still remember the excellent piece the mag did on "Big Trouble In Little China" in the 1986 November issue. It is presented here on this DVD together with a piece from "American Cinematographer." Instead of being direct reprints of the print articles, these features have been spiced up quite a bit, now containing video clips, dedicated illustrations and photos, as well as additional information. It is a feature that once again shows how DVD’s capabilities can be used to create content that is engaging and informative, even when it originated from something as plain as a sheet of paper. Kudos to Fox for once again taking a very inventive approach to presenting valuable insight on this DVD.

Production notes, and theatrical trailers round out this great package, combined with an extensive photo gallery. Much of the picture material presented in this gallery is rare and has not been widely published before, so look out for some very interesting images. Last, but certainly not least, the DVD comes with an incredible music video. "The Coup De Villes" – featuring John Carpenter, Tommy Lee Wallace and Nick Castle, perform and star the end-credit song "Big Trouble In Little China," all the while making it a hilarious finale to this Special Edition. Make sure to check it out for a cool blast!

As I mentioned in my opening, "Big Trouble In Little China" is no doubt one of Carpenter’s most under-appreciated films. It was Hollywood’s first attempt to pay homage to the Hong Kong martial arts genre – long before "The Matrix" was even conceived – and in a way it does it better than any film I have seen so far – including some of the wackiest paper-maché creatures that could directly spring from an oriental film. Carpenter understands the quintessence of Hong Kong cinema and reproduces these elements in the same fashion. The result are wicked action scenes and hair raising comic moments that could have sprung directly from a Sammo Hung movie. For fans of the film, the verdict is clear – you have to own this DVD. For everyone else, I can only say, go, get this disc or you will be missing out on one of the most unique and enjoyable action-comedy-movie highlights Hollywood has ever produced.