Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Blu-ray Review: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Label: Arrow Video
Region Code: B
Duration: 99 Minutes 
Rating: Certificate 15
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Uncompressed LPCM 2.0 Audio with Optional English SDH Subtitles
Video: 1080p Widescreen (2.35:1)
Cast: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Donald Li, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, James Pax
Director: John Carpenter

It must have been the summer of 1987 when I first saw John Carpenter's cult-classic comedy projected on the big screen at Hadley Hall in Willard, NY. Hadley Hall was an auditorium at the Willard Psychiatric Center which opened it's doors to the divergent masses in 1869 . Twenty-four years later a 500 seat auditorium opened and the space was used for performances and lectures. In 1920 a cinema screen and projector were added and on Monday nights movies were projected for the enjoyment of patients and staff. 

Sixty-five years later my father was employed at the psychiatric center working and one day informed me that they screened movies at the asylum on Saturday mornings and that I could attend if I wanted. Now the nearest theater as thirty miles away and a pretty rare experience for me so of course I wanted to go! Nearly every Saturday afterward from about 1986-'87 found me at the psyche center watching projected movies with the crazies.

Hadley Hall photo courtesy of Louis Q Photography
Dad would drop me off in front of Hadley and I would walk up the stairs into the main auditorium and find a seat among the patients in fold-up chairs. Typically I would chose to sit on the exercise equipment that lined the rear of the auditorium if possible or in the balcony area which was usually roped off for some reason. I reasoned it was because the patients might be tempted to jump off and injure themselves. There would be a handful of other kids my age enjoying the movies, most likely the offspring of other employees such as myself. The psych center was an open campus and it seemed that many of the patients were free to wander the grounds as long as they were back in time for bed check.  I was no stranger to the facility and would frequently visit my father while he was at work and I had a familiarity with being around the patients, knowing several by name. In retrospect it may seem odd but at the time I wasn't alarmed to be watching movies with the nutters. Sure a few were a bit peculiar and prone to tourettic outbursts but it wasn't anymore distracting than a typical Friday at the cinema today with annoying chatty teens texting away. 

The programming was pretty eclectic, a nice mix of repertory and second-run showings of comedies, fantasy-adventure and drama. A few of the movies I watched there include Armed and Dangerous, Spies Like Us, Cloak and Dagger, King Solomon's Mines, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, King Kong Lives, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, Foul play (1982), 2001: A Space Odyssey and I shit you not - a screening of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest which was all sorts of wrong and the delicious irony was not at all lost on me even at the young age of thirteen. I look back on these magical screenings with a true sense of nostalgia and my love of Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd  comedies started here. I would love to meet the programmers who brought these movies to Willard Psychiatric Center and helped shape my cinematic tastes during these  formative teen years and just say thank you for saving me from boredom for ninety-minutes at a time. .

That long winded tangent brings me to my first viewing of John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China (1986) a classic slice of cult-cinema screened at the psyche center sometime in 1987. Probably not too very long after it bombed at the box office. I don't recall having seen any advertising or promotion for the film prior to watching it and if you know the story of how the studio dropped the ball promoting the film that may not be a surprise. At that point I hadn't started identifying directors as the creators of movies. I'd watched Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980) and The Thing (1982) hadn't connected the dots and attributed them to the work of one man. When it came to directors I pretty much knew who Steven Spielberg was and that was about it. As it happened Carpenter was coming off the success of the science fiction romance Starman (1984) following the box office failure of The Thing - a movie that has since evolved into one of the most revered fright flicks of all time. Having redeemed himself the studio offered Carpenter this project and after reading the W.D. Richter (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) penned script jumped on board. A lifelong fan of kung fu cinema Carpenter was pretty stoked to bring a big budget chop socky fantasy-adventure-comedy to the screen.

At it's heart Big Trouble in Little China is a goofy fantasy-adventure romp loaded with Chinese mysticism and crazy over-the-top martial arts action. Kurt Russell is a truck driver Jack Burton who becomes entangled in the bizarre when his friend Wang's (Dennis Dun) soon-to-be wife Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) is abducted from the airport by the Chinese gang Lords of Death at the request of the dreaded sorcerer Lo Pan, played by actor James Hong (BladeRunner) who is is fantastic as the squealing and conniving sorcerer.

Jack Burton is a sort of half-ass John Wayne type who peels off some of the most quotable one-liners in all of cinema. Full of tough-talking bravado but with absolutely nothing to back it up. Barely rising to the status of anti-hero he's just a big-mouthed jackass who'd be dead twice over of not for the heroics of his diminutive ass kicking friend Wang. 

As the plot unfolds we discover that the sorcerer Lo Pan requires Wang's green-eyed girl to perform a ritual sacrifice which will free him from a centuries old curse. Lo Pan has three henchmen known as The Three Storms, a trio of supernatural warriors that would be right at home in a Mortal Kombat video game. There's Thunder (Carter Wong), Rain (Peter Kwong) and the phenomenal Lightning (James Pax) who each control an elemental power. Burton and Wang enlist the help of an eccentric Chinese mystic, the squinty-eyed sorcerer Egg Shen (Victor Wong, Prince of Darkness) to help rescue Miao Yin from Lo Pan's underground labyrinth.  Along for the ride is a nosy and obnoxious reporter Gracie Law (Kim Catrall) who tags along providing a difficult love interest for Burton . the two have a fun adversarial chemistry as Gracie defends herself against Jack's clumsy come-ons.

Big Trouble is a special effects and martial arts extravaganza with some great effects work from Richard Edlund and the Boss Film Studios crew who worked on a ton of 80's classics  including Ghostbusters (1983), Poltergeist (1982), Fright Night (1985) and the Star Wars trilogy. For this one they created some creepy mystical creatures including a Chinese Wildman, a multi-eyed floating sentinel and a weird fish-lizard monster which we see for just a moment - blink and you'll miss it. A small complain about the effects would be I wanted more of 'em onscreen for longer! Particularly the wildman since the ending hints at a continuing story , where's the sequel John Carpenter?. 

The chop socky battles sequences are fantastic, a kinetic blend of martial arts styles and some sweet gravity-defying wire work - it's a trip. We have no shortage of flying fists of fury the clanging of weaponry and various implements of impalement -  fun action packed stuff. The film has a great pace that never lets up, moving forward at a quick pace that never leaves you time to question reality, logic or reasoning - which is good because all three are in short supply. 

The set from production design from John Lloyd is simply amazing, it was hard to believe the Chinatown sequences were not shot on location. Once our heroes descend into the labyrinthine underworld of Lo Pan it's particularly fantastic as the film takes a dark fantasy feel as they progress through the sewers into the palace like interiors and the underwater torture chamber right up to a bizarre neon-lit room, a visual stunner.  

The tone of the film is a bit off-kilter right from the start. Big Trouble doesn't take itself too serious and the cast are game to make fools of themselves , this definitely doesn't come off as the usual cliched adventure romp. They set out to make a zany actioner that subverts many of the usual stereotypes and he succeeds on all fronts in my opinion. Big Trouble in Little China is a strange and wonderful watch and one of the most quotable movies of all time, a cult-classic in the truest sense of the word and unique unto itself. 

The film bombed big time at the box office recouping just over half of it's budget in part due to poor promotion and ad campaign. The studio were unhappy with the finished product having wanted a more traditional Indian Jones type movie, but with a script co-penned by the writer/director of Buckaroo Banzai what did they expect?  The post-production hassles from the studio turned Carpenter off future studio productions for quite awhile and despite the initial poor reception Big Trouble has since gone on to develop quite a rabid fan base not unlike. What can you say, John Carpenter was a man ahead of his time. 

Blu-ray: Arrow Video's transfer of the John Carpenter cult-classic looks great with a nice natural layer of film grain with some decent fine detail, depth and clarity. Colors are bright and the image is modestly crisp all things considered. I threw on my 20th Century Fox Blu-ray and was hard-pressed to notice much of a difference except to note that the Arrow release is perhaps a tiny smidgen brighter.

Audio options include English language DTS-HD Master Audio 51 and Uncompressed PCM 2.0 with optional English SDH subtitles. It's a lively presentation with some modest audio depth, perhaps not the most dynamic surround experience one could hope for but there's some effective use of the surrounds. Mirroring the 20th Century Fox release we have the option of listening to the John Carpenter and Alan Howarth original score via DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Onto the special features we have all of the extras from the 20th Century Fox Blu-ray including deleted scenes, an extended ending, a vintage featurette, music video, the isolated score, a behind-the-scenes gallery, trailers and TV spots, Richard Edlund interview plus the fantastic audio commentary with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. When these two get together for an commentary is always a blast and this is one of my favorites. 

Arrow come through with new extras with over an hour of brand new Severin Films produced interviews with Director John Carpenter, star Kurt Russell, stuntman Jeff Imada, producer Larry Franco and cinematographer Dean Cundey.

Carpenter talks about being offered Big Trouble in Little China following the success of Starman after the box office failure of The Thing, loving W.D. Richter penned script and how  the project evolved from a Western into a contemporary setting. He speaks about the studio's disappointment with the film - they wanted something more akin to Indiana Jones - and the cult-status of the movie. 

Reversible Art Option 

Kurt Russell remembers working with Carpenter beginning with TV movie Elvis (1979) then onto Escape from New York and The Thing right up to Big Trouble, describing his character as a half-assed John Wayne and the film's poor performance at the cinema and cult-status. 

Dean Cundey who worked on many of the signature Carpenter films discusses the his b-movie roots, the origins of Halloween (1978)as a babysitter killer movie and his other collaborations with Carpenter plus the tone of the Big Trouble, the production design from John Lloyd and the joys of working with Kurt Russell. 

Producer Larry Franco was Russell's brother-in-law at the time and recounts Kurt bringing him into the Carpenter fold beginning with the Elvis TV movie and his other collaborations with Carpenter ending with Big Trouble. Interestingly he talks about a few properties that Carpenter nearly directed including the comedy Armed and Dangerous and Firestarter - the latter of which seems to have affected Carpenter quite a bit and further fueled his desire to work outside the studio system. .

Stuntman Jeff Imada goes into his martial arts background and perusing his acting/stuntman career in Hollywood. He speaks about his time on the set of Big Trouble and performing multiple roles, the mixed martial arts style of the film and the tech and wire-work utilized to perform the stunts. The stuntman fondly recalls working with Russell, James Hong and Dennis and how he started his career as a second unit director in Carpenter's They Live (1988).

Limited Edition SteelBook
The check disc sent for review from Arrow Video unfortunately did not include the cover art the booklet but the retail version of the release includes a reversible sleeve with new artwork from artists Jay Shaw and a booklet featuring new writing on the film by John Kenneth Muir, author of The Films of John Carpenter, a re-print of an article on the effects of the film from American Cinematographer, illustrated with archive stills and posters - it's a top notch release. There is also a sweet looking Limited Edition SteelBook™ available from Arrow Video with the same AV presentation and features.  

It's been a bang-up year for John Carpenter fans with a slew of definitive reissues on Blu-ray from Scream Factory and now from Arrow Video. Would love to see Arrow continue down this path with more Carpenter on Blu-ray along the lines of what they've done with the movies of Brian De Palma, Lucio Fulci, George A. Romero and Dario Argento.
Special Features:
- High Definition presentation from a digital transfer prepared by 20th Century Fox
- Optional 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and uncompressed Stereo 2.0 Audio
- Isolated 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Isolated Score
- Audio Commentary with director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell- Return to Little China – A brand new interview with John Carpenter (12:16)

- Being Jack Burton – A brand new interview with Kurt Russell (20:59)
- Carpenter and I – A brand new interview with cinematographer Dean Cundey (15:40)
- Producing Big Trouble – A new interview with producer Larry Franco (15:23)
- Staging Little Trouble – A new interview with stuntman Jeff Imada (12:30)
- Interview with visual effects producer Richard Edlund(13:27)
- Vintage Making-of featurette featuring cast and crew (7:28)
- Extended Ending (3:17)
- 8 Deleted Scenes
- Music Video (3:28)
- Gallery of behind-the-scenes images (4:23)
- 3 Original Trailers(2::47)
- 6 TV Spots (2:57)
- Reversible Sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jay Shaw
- Booklet featuring new writing on the film by John Kenneth Muir, author of The Films of John Carpenter, a re-print of an article on the effects of the film from American Cinematographer, illustrated with archive stills and posters

Verdict: Big Trouble in Little China (186) is a cult-classic and one Hell of a fun watch, this bizarre comedy-fantasy actioner may not be the best film in the Carpenter canon but it's without a doubt the one I revisit the most. When I'm having a shit day there's a short-list of 80's comedies I can pop in to cheer me up and this at the top. On a technical AV level this edition mirrors the 20th Century Fox release but Arrow Video go the extra mile and amp it up with over an hour of brand-new interviews on-top of carrying over the extras from the region A release. If you're a serious fan of the film this is an essential item. 4 Outta 5