Thursday, August 11, 2016

Big Trouble in Little China

For me, seeing 1985's BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA for the first time last year was a strong confirmation that nostalgia often trumps taste.  To clarify - I'll bet that if I had seen the movie when I was sixteen I would be among the sizable cult who rave over John Carpenter's iconic film, who fondly remember their multiple viewings, possibly with (similarly) intoxicated friends.  I suspect that if I saw movies like the original FRIGHT NIGHT or THE GOONIES or THE LOST BOYS for the first time as a forty-something, I would have a similar reaction.  Impressionable mind and emotions as a young man? Yes.  Yearning for that time in middle age?  Somewhat.  I re-watch many '80s films and get that warm feeling that yesteryear things are known for, even as I see deficiencies in them.

Carpenter was clearly going for camp.  Homages to martial arts and Charlie Chan pics.  Also, adventure serials and Tarzan epics of the 1930s.  It's obvious at every moment that the director loves these genres - there isn't a whiff of a hint of condesencion or irony - and his direction of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is as skillful as ever.  John Lloyd's set design is marvelous and the trio of editors create a lightning pace that is just right.  The screenplay ("adapted" by W.D. Richter from a previous one) is a hodge podge of cliffhanger and Chinese mysticism with lots of narrow escapes and amusing dialogue.  The characters are expectedly broadly drawn and colorful.  Carpenter contributes another effective electronic score, this one rife with '80s fluorishes.  So why didn't I have a better time with this movie?

Kurt Russell plays motormouth trucker Jack Burton.  Many of his lines are funny.  He really loves his rig, so when it's stolen by mysterious forces he's plenty pissed. Joining him are restraunteur Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), magician Egg Shen (Victor Wong), the spunky Gracie (Kim Cattrall), and several others to rescue Wang's fiancee Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) from the dreaded Lo Pan (James Hong), a powerful sorcerer.   Pan likes green eyed women, eventually deciding to marry both Miao Yin and Gracie.  Actually, Pan is trying to reverse an ancient curse that has rendered him both as a hobbled old man and an apparition of sorts and needs the ladies with the green irises as sacrifices to the gods.  There are also three supernatural figures ("storms", representing weather elements) who serve Pan and wreak havoc everywhere.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA's action is set mostly in San Francisco's Chinatown. Actually, within an entirely fabricated recreation of it.  The sets are fascinating, as are the costumes.  Richard Edlund's visual effects are very good for their time, and I think I actually prefer them to the CGI of today.  So again, what's the problem? I think it's the tone - too silly.  Whimsy taken a bit too far.  The movie should've been darker, with a rougher edge.  Oh, there's a significant body count, lots of fights, shootouts, but everything is just so goofy.

The actors have fun with their screwball byplay, but for me it didn't quite fit in this movie, a Western transplanted to an Asian setting.  Russell is in good form, and his approach is right.  I feel the entire project should've been rethought.  Perhaps Carpenter should've emulated Richter's BUCKAROO BANZAI, an eccentric film that you could call silly but never too much so.  Despite my opening thoughts I'll bet if I'd seen that film for the first time yesterday I would've loved it just as much.

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