Big Trouble in Little China (UK - BD RB)
Chris' fingers worked furiously to bring you this BD review. It's all in the reflexes!
Big Trouble in Little China was critically panned on its release in 1986. Poorly marketed and overlooked by cinemagoers, the film finally found its place on video and it has become a ‘cult’ favourite over the years. Believe it or not, way back in 1986 at the tender age of eleven, I was one of those few people who visited the cinema in order to see the film. Quite how I managed to get in at that age is anyone’s guess, but I remember enjoying it immensely and it's remained one of my favourite films to this day. I already own both Fox's DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film, but now Arrow has married the extras from the standard-definition disc with the high-definition audio-visual presentation and applied some of their own magic.
When trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) accompanied his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) to the airport to meet his green-eyed fiancé, Miao Yin, he never expected to get caught up in the supernatural battle between the forces of good and evil! After Miao Yin is kidnapped by a Chinese street gang named the Lords of Death the trail leads Jack and Wang deep beneath the streets of Chinatown, where they encounter a two thousand year old sorcerer named Lo Pan (James Hong) and his minions, the Three Storms. Lo Pan is seeking a green-eyed girl to take as his bride in order to fulfil an ancient prophecy that will make him flesh and blood once more, so Jack and Wang team up with ‘fearless’ lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and local magician Egg Shen (Victor Wong) in order to infiltrate Lo Pan’s domain and rescue Miao Yin.
Now there is much to love about Big Trouble in Little China, but top of the list has to be Kurt Russell’s portrayal of Jack Burton. Unlike most films of the time our ‘hero’ is an inept buffoon who is often guilty of opening his mouth before engaging his brain and it is Russell’s willingness to act the fool that makes his character so endearing. He plays Jack as a swaggering, cocksure kind of guy, who is in reality completely and totally out of his depth. The real hero of the piece is Wang (played by Dennis Dun) and the two characters compliment each other perfectly. The kind of role reversal sort is nothing new nowadays, but it was a real rarity back in 1986.
Kim Cattrall is great as Gracie Law, the spunky human rights lawyer with a knack for finding trouble. She delivers a lot of, frankly absurd, dialogue with enthusiastic conviction and although her acting isn’t quite up to the standard that it is today she bring both strength and charm to the role. I also enjoyed the sexual tension between her character and that of Russell's Burton, and this tension is used as the catalyst for some of the film’s more amusing moments. However, one character steals the show: Victor Wong’s ‘Egg Shen’. Egg, local magician and authority on Lo Pan, offers up gems of fortune cookie wisdom while leading our heroes deep into the heart of Lo Pan’s empire. There are also some great supporting turns, particularly from Kate Burton whose reporter Margo is called upon to do so much plot summarising her character's surname should be 'Exposition'.
Then of course there's the action, which is like nothing else you'll see in an eighties American movie. Big Trouble in Little China features a host of martial arts actors, including such familiar faces as Jeff Imada, Dan Inosanto, Al Leong and Gerald Okamura, working to choreography by Imada himself. The huge street fight between the Ching Sang and the Wing Kong is great, even before the three clowns with the wicker lampshades on their heads show up and start hurling lightening bolts and the like! It’s this combination of a wacky sense of fun, high-kicking kung fu action and comedic elements that makes Big Trouble in Little China so great. It’s a totally unpretentious movie, not afraid to ridicule itself or the audience’s preconceptions of the genre. Some may criticise the fanciful plot (or apparent lack thereof), but I urge you to see the film before dismissing it. You won’t regret it.
From what I can tell this release utilises the same transfer as 20th Century Fox's own effort, with some minor tweaks that is. For one thing, the 2.40:1 (1080/24p AVC) transfer is framed a smidgen tighter than the US release, but I seriously doubt anyone would notice without comparing the two (I certainly didn't). The transfer showcases the film's colour palette to its fullest extent, with some wonderful primaries on show in the neons of Chinatown and Lo Pan's lair. Things seem about the same between the UK and US releases here, although when taking screen caps I did see a very, very slight green push in the US caps that wasn't present in the UK equivalents. You'd never know without a side-by-side comparison though. The image is also nice and sharp without looking artificial, with the intricate detailing on the costumes a particular highlight. There is light grain present throughout, only looking ever so slightly heavy in darker scenes, but even then it never becomes a distraction. Blacks are a little on the muddy side, owing more to the original cinematography than anything else, but they are satisfactory overall. To be perfectly honest there are very few negatives to report; some minor posterisation is visible in a few scenes and a few small white speckles can be seen here and there, but they're so infrequent as to be almost inconsequential. This is a great encode of a great transfer that looks, well, great!
The primary audio track is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 effort that sounds very respectable for an eighties film, particularly one of this ilk. With that said, it's not as expansive as some, with only minimal use of the surround channels for the score and general ambience. The bulk of the action occurs up-front, but thankfully stereo panning is pretty decent and the centrally-rooted dialogue is intelligible and generally of good quality. I was initially a little concerned by the absence of bass during the opening scenes, but I needn't have worried as it shows up around the time the Chang Sing and Wing Kong throw down in the alley to offer some pretty beefy support. The Carpenter/Howarth score is also well-prioritisd, blending the director's trademark synth with rock 'n' roll to great effect. It's a pretty decent remix given the limitation of the source, and should please all but the most demanding listeners. It's also worth mentioning that the disc offers an LPCM 2.0 track for the purists.
Arrow has assembled a collection of bonus material to put any previous release of the film firmly in the shade. Not only are the extras from previous DVD editions and the US Blu-ray included, there are also a number of new interviews with the cast and crew. Here's a list, followed by a brief discussion:
- Return to Little China
- Being Jack Burton
- Carpenter and I
- Producing Big Trouble
- Staging Little Trouble
- Interview with visual effects producer Richard Edlund
- Deleted Scenes
- Extended Ending
- Vintage Featurette
- Music Video
- TV Spots
- Behind-the-Scenes Gallery
- Commentary by Director John Carpenter & Actor Kurt Russell
- Isolated Score 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
- 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
Those of you wondering if Arrow’s disc is worth your money if you already own the US Blu-ray will be primarily concerned with the new interviews. There are five in total, with the likes of director John Carpenter, star Kurt Russell, cinematographer Dean Cundey, producer Larry Franco and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada on-hand to give their thoughts. The interviews are unusually candid, touching on the film’s various production and post-production woes. Carpenter in particular seems to have been deeply affected by the film’s box office failure, which he maintains was the result of studio interference. It appears to have been the beginning of his dislike for and disassociation from the Hollywood studio system and his comments make for very interesting listening. Kurt Russell basically says more of the same, although he also talks about his other collaborations with Carpenter and his role in the film. The interviews with Cundey, Franco and Imada cover similar ground, although with obvious focus on their particular areas of expertise.
As to the material that’s been recycled from previous release, a thirteen and a half minute interview with special effects maestro Richard Edlund ( Star Wars) is up first. Presented in multiple angles, Edland discusses key special effects and makeup sequences from the film; angle one shows Edlund with various slides appearing in a small box in the top left of the screen and angle two shows the slides full screen while Edlund commentates. Next up are eight deleted scenes, although they are largely just extensions to existing scenes rather than entirely new sequences. The scenes are sourced from either work-prints or videotape (sometimes both) and as such the quality is often very poor. Each scene is accompanied by introductory text to set them up, while one of the scenes features a multi-angle option in which it is possible to view storyboards for elements that never made it into the completed scene. The final deleted scene is a compilation of odds and ends from various sources, some of which do not appear in the finished film. Also included is an extended ending, but this is definitely one occasion when the original ending is far superior. Still, it makes for an interesting bit of viewing if nothing else.
The vintage featurette runs for a little under eight minutes and includes plenty of on set interviews and behind the scenes footage. Next up we have a kitsch music video by the Coupe De Villes featuring, among others, director John Carpenter on bass and vocals! The usual selection of trailers, TV spots and still photos are also present and provide a flavour of how Fox marketed the film back in the day.
Of course the real star of the aural extras is the audio commentary with Carpenter and Russell, which is just as good as their tracks for The Thing and Escape from New York. The pair have a great rapport, indulging in some witty banter as they reminisce about the other actors, the on-set antics and more. There's hardly a dull moment to be found and it still ranks as one of my favourite chat tracks to this day. Rounding things off we have an isolated score, which some some might deem irrelevant track but is a welcome addition on account of the 'awesomeness' of Big Trouble in Little China's soundtrack. Finally we have Arrow's customary booklet, but we didn't get a copy of that with our review sample.
Many years after I first saw it on the big screen, Big Trouble in Little China remains one of my favourite John Carpenter pictures. It is charming, funny and full of rousing action the likes of which you just don't see in modern pictures. I'm so glad it found a place on home video, because it's a fantastic little movie that more than deserves its legions of adoring fans. If nothing else, it deserves to be seen on account of being the director's last great studio movie.
Arrow's presentation of the film is at least on a par with Fox's from a technical standpoint (and possibly a hair better), but it is the supplemental material where they have really excelled. Taking an already impressive selection of extras and an improving upon them is testament to the labels' commitment to 'cult' cinema and catalogue titles in general. The only thing missing is a feature-length making of documentary, but given the film's chequered history that may be asking too much. Even so, this is a fantastic release that all self-respecting Carpenter fans will be happy to add to their collections. If you haven't yet seen the film this is the perfect opportunity, so do yourself a favour and grab a copy!
Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 16th December 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, LPCM 2.0 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Isolated Score, Interviews, Deleted Scenes, Alternate Ending, Featurette, Music Video, Trailers, TV Spots, Still Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Donald Li, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, James Pax, Suzee Pai, Chao Li Chi
Genre: Action, Comedy and Fantasy
Length: 100 minutes
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