Awkwardly marketed and unloved upon its mid-80s release by 20th Century Fox, Big Trouble In Little China directly followed director John Carpenter’s most mainstream release to date, 1984’s warm sci-fi romance Starman. That movie went some way to restoring Carpenter’s favour with Hollywood after the disastrous initial reaction to his take on The Thing, but the unhappy experience he had on Big Trouble – and it’s poor commercial performance – sent the filmmaker back to indie genre pictures, starting with 1986’s Pricne of Darkness (which features two of this film’s stars, Wong and Dun).
Cannily scripted by Richter and adorned with a characteristically evocative, pulsing score by Carpenter and Alan Howarth, this movie is, if anything, more refreshingly offbeat today than it ever was. Russell, in his fourth team-up with the director, enjoys his most laid-back role for Carpenter, relishing the chance to portray an ingratiating, if cocky, Everyman trucker with a John Wayne drawl and a tendency to appear foolish in moments of tension. Helping out his old pal (Dun) by picking up the love of his life from the airport, the brash Russell unwittingly ends up in an altercation resulting in the girl being abducted by a mysterious bunch of Chinese hoodlums. American gal Cattrall, close by when the incident occurs, knows something about the unfolding events, which ultimately incorporate ancient prophecies, Chinese gods, shape-shifting, tour guide Victor Wong and arch-villain Lo-Pan (Hong).
Carpenter’s early movies, in and out of the horror genre, were distinguished by taut pacing, a pervasive sense of menace and a serving of proficient action set pieces. Although arguably his most light hearted escapade up to that point, Big Trouble is no exception. It sets up its stall early on in spectacular style with a terrific Chinese stand-off in an alleyway culminating with the first appearance of Hong’s genuinely intimidating and unique uber bad-guy. Running alongside the Eastern-influenced weirdness and rousing martial arts is a fine line in droll wit (“The Chinese got a lot of Hells!”) and a playful approach to the film’s nominal tough guy that frequently results in Russell made to look ridiculous (witness the intermittent adornment of dorky glasses, nerd clothes and lipstick).
Sporting a vest and mullet and gamely participating in the bouts of slapstick, Russell is huge fun to watch, while Cattrall is a typically feisty Carpenter heroine. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Fox had no idea what to do with this big-budget genre picture, since it is far more bizarre than the Indiana Jones clone they clearly yearned for. With its cameoing bug-eyed monsters and floating disembodied heads (not to mention an irresistibly naff, none-more-80’s title song by Carpenter’s band) this nutty, imaginative and technically terrific time-capsule piece has never looked or played better.
EXTRAS ★★★★ Arrow offers a gorgeous HD transfer of the movie, porting over all the extras from the original two-disc Fox DVD release while adding some far superior new features, all of which offer honest and fascinating viewpoints on the studio’s treatment of the film. Carpenter himself is typically frank as he discusses how the studio’s attitude prompted him to depart from the mainstream for some time. Russell very affectionately reflects on his working life with Carpenter (particularly The Thing) and laments the movie’s terrible marketing and its failure to find a contemporary audience. Producer Larry Franco offers additional insights into collaborations with Carpenter that didn’t happen (notably, Firestarter). Best of all for long-term fans might well be the presence of the great old commentary between buddies Carpenter and Russell, in which their off-camera camaraderie is apparent for all to enjoy.• Review courtesy of FrightFest