SEPTEMBER 30 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : PHANTOM EMPIRE
Hello there, all you happy people! How do I know that you’re happy people? Why, because it’s a brand new month, and that means its time for another Odd Review! How could you possibly NOT be happy? …Don’t answer that. And, of course, I am your buddy, Oddcube, here to say “Hello, and welcome to the column!”
So…Hello! And welcome to the column!
In case you don’t know it, my job is to find all sorts of things that you may not be aware are out there…and whether or not they’re worth your time! I get to talk about a wide variety of things, including music, movies, mini-series, and other things that don’t even begin with “M”. Then, to give you a rough idea of how good it is, I roll my D&D percentage dice to randomly determine a rating between one and a hundred. But more on that near the end of the article!
This time around, I’m gonna tell you about a classic movie serial! Now, if you’re of the older generation you probably know exactly what I mean by that, but I’d better explain to the younger ones. Now listen kiddies, if you go talk to Grandma and Grandpa they can tell you that back when movies were new you went to the theater and saw TWO full-length feature films, a newsreel, a travelogue, a cartoon, and a weekly serial—all for about a nickel!
Well, we’re talking about those serials today! Why? Because they were neat! They were cool! They greatly influenced generations of movie-makers! Plus…I don’t have anything else prepared.
The serials evolved directly from the pulp magazines of the time, and comic strips. Several famous heroes appeared in serials, including: Ace Drummond, Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Tarzan, and Zorro! The serial “Undersea Kingdom” is where Ray Corrigan obtained the nickname “Crash”, and the serial “The Phantom Empire” was the very first film to star world-renowned singing cowboy, Gene Autry!
And that’s the one we’re gonna talk about today! I’ve got a really good reason for it, too! It’s the one I’ve most recently seen! If that’s not a good enough reason…I don’t know what you can do about it!
So anyway, there was this movie company, called Mascot (which would later be absorbed into Republic, perhaps the most famous producer of film serials!). Nat Levine was the man in charge, and he instructed one of his writers, Wallace McDonald, to come up with a really boffo storyline for their next film project. Well, according to indisputable internet sources, McDonald read up on the Carlsbad Caverns while waiting in the dentist’s office. When the dentist gassed him, he had this groovy dream about an underground kingdom fighting against the surface people who discovered them! Luckily, he remembered this when he woke up, and viola! They had a plot!
In the serial, Gene Autry plays himself, or at least a character with the same name. He is the owner of Radio Ranch, where he and his musicians broadcast their radio show every day at two o’clock. Somehow, this has become a part of the lease agreement or something, cuz if Gene EVER fails to sing on the two o’clock radio show they will lose the ranch!
Gene has a partner who helps run the ranch, a man named Tom Baxter. Tom has two children, Frankie (played by Frankie Darro, who wore the Robby the Robot suit in “Forbidden Planet”) and Betsy (played by experienced rodeo performer, Betsy King Ross). Frankie and Betsy run a sort of a fan club called the Junior Thunder Riders, which is named after a mysterious company of horsemen who ride across the plains sounding like thunder (get it?) and mysteriously appear and disappear in Thunder Canyon. Frankie and Betsy also have a “secret lab” in the barn, where Frankie tries to invent things.
They allow tourists to come to radio ranch, for the whole “live studio audience” bit, I guess. However, in this batch of tourists is Professor Beetson and his (quote) “vicious band of research scientists” (unquote). Studies suggest that somewhere beneath Radio Ranch is a vast store of the very rare mineral, Radium! So Beetson and his vicious band of research scientists (I LOVE that line!) have come to do some scouting and run some tests to confirm this.
Guess what? It turns out the study was right! There’s just oodles of radium in the area! So Beetson and his vicious band of research scientists (you only get lines like that in old-school stuff like movie serials and pulp mags!) decide they have to drive everyone away from Radio Ranch so they can dig it all up without having to share it with anyone! Why? Well I told ya it was extremely rare, so they can sell it and get filthy stinkin’ rich!
How can they get rid of all the people in Radio Ranch? By getting rid of the reason they’re all there: the show. All they have to do is make Gene Autry miss his two o’clock broadcast—then the terms of their lease will be broken and they’ll get kicked out and the ranch will be deserted! Unfortunately, they turn out to be an INCOMPETENT vicious band of research scientists, and their efforts to detain Gene result in heaping amounts of EPIC FAIL!
So Professor Beetson, compelled by his greed, decides to drastically up the stakes. He kills Tom Baxter, and then frames Gene Autry for it! The only ones who believe that Gene is innocent are Frankie and Betsy, who hide him in the secret lab in the barn so the Sherriff can’t find him. Of course, he doesn’t stay there long before he is discovered, and goes on the run—straight to Thunder Canyon!
Well it turns out that Thunder Canyon hold the secret entrance that leads to the Scientific City of Murania (the mysterious underground “Phantom Empire” of the series title). Murania is a technologically advanced culture with robots, sky-chariots, atomic cannons and other good stuff! It’s implied that the people of Murania are the descendents of the lost kingdom of Mu. In case you don’t know, Mu is a mysterious island kingdom that supposedly sunk into the ocean, and it cannot be proved whether or not it actually existed. Sorta like Atlantis, except Mu was supposed to be somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
Gene manages to escape from the Sherriff and the vicious band of research scientists (it actually says that phrase in the opening of one of the chapters!) by getting captured by the Thunder Riders, who take him into Murania! Ha, take that, surface antagonists!
But—oh snap!—things just got worse instead of better! See, the xenophobic ruler of Murania, Queen Tika (played by Dorothy Christie) has been watching us ignorant and barbaric surface people on her fancy-shmancy television, and wants absolutely nothing to do with us! She has no qualms about killing surface people to keep Murania secret and safe, so she decides to kill Gene Autry!
However, that’s still not complicated enough to stretch out for twelve whole chapters, so to complicate matters the Queen’s trusted advisor, Lord Argo the High Chancellor, is plotting to start a civil war, overthrow the Queen and put himself in charge! The swine! Why do all these rulers of lost kingdoms trust their trusted advisors? Don’t they know the trusted advisor ALWAYS turns out to be the bad-guy?!
Anyway, the traitorous Lord Argo has been slowly building up an army of rebels by saving people from the execution chamber. And he decides to save Gene Autry! But Gene, being the bland but dutiful hero-type, utterly refuses to join up and escapes instead!
So, because this is a 1935 movie serial, there’s a lot of “one damn thing after another” as Gene commutes between the surface world and the secret underground kingdom. He keeps having to sing on the radio show, but has to do it from remote locations so the Sherriff can’t catch him before he can clear himself of murder, and one or another of his sidekicks keeps getting kidnapped by the Muranians so he has a convenient excuse to go back there and help overthrow evil High Chancellor Argo.
I don’t really want to ruin the ending, in case anyone out there wants to check it out first hand. But I will say that I was surprised how…useful a role the comedic sidekicks ended up playing. Cuz in addition to the kids, Frankie and Betsy, Gene had two other sidekicks, Oscar and Pete (played by Smiley Burnette and William Moore). They spend most of the series being silly for the sake of being silly. But eventually, these two guys ended up orchestrating some vital plot points! I was impressed! And pleasantly surprised!
In 1940, the serial was edited down to the more reasonable feature film length of 70 minutes, and issued under two different names: “Radio Ranch” and “Men With Steel Faces”. And that’s not all! “The Phantom Empire” was also the inspiration behind one of the three serials featured weekly on the 1979 TV show “Cliffhangers”, a show which sounds really cool, but sadly didn’t last a full season.
It seems to me that these old-school serials are sort of an acquired taste nowadays. Just like any other film genre, there are some that are pretty good and others that are not. Fortunately, you don’t have to buy one to check it out. Netflix has a few serials for rent, including this one (that’s how I saw it). They have a few others that you can stream to your computer. There are also some other sites where you can stream or download old movies and serials that are now public domain. But you can watch it for free online at archivemovieclassics.com and other places that I can’t tell you about because when I found them I was dumb and forgot to bookmark them. But a web-search should get you more results!
Oh yeah, almost forgot. In order to maintain the disguise of a mild-mannered review column, I’ve got to issue a rating. As I’m the indecisive type when it comes to things like this, I’ve got a pair of handy-dandy D&D percentage dice to do it for me! The concept here is really easy. Percentage dice are two ten-sided dice. One represents the digit of the ones place, while the other represents the digit of the tens place. Together, they randomly determine a number anywhere from 01 (oh dear Lord, make it STOP!) and double-0 which actually means 100 (the unreachable standard to which all projects ought to aspire). So I’ll give my dice a simple toss like so…
…and end up with a fairly respectable 70! I guess that ain’t too bad. I can live with that. Like I said, these old-fashioned serials aren’t for everyone, even if they did inspire things like “Star Wars” and Indiana Jones. However, this was one of the better ones I’ve seen, so if you’re interested in old-fashioned serials, I can recommend this one!
But hey, that’s only one idiot’s opinion, and you don’t have to take it! You could check it out for yourself and form your own opinion! That’s what I did! And since I can’t really think of anything else to say, I guess I’ll just say so long until next time! Speaking of next time, you should come back and find out what I’m gonna talk about next time, that way we’ll both know! Be there and be square!
-----Your Buddy Oddcube
SEPTEMBER 30 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA
By Drew Fitzpatrick • August 5, 2009
1986 saw director John Carpenter at the height of his career; a string of staggering successes charting back to HALLOWEEN and including THE FOG, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE THING and CHRISTINE represent a creative peak that any director would be jealous of. 1984’s STARMAN not only buoyed the streak; it gave Carpenter the critical raves that often eluded genre directors. Taken in hindsight, there isn’t another filmmaker that we can think of – regardless of genre – who has been able to produce six legitimate classics in as many years. Major studios were eager to work with Carpenter, and there was even a flirtation with the Salkind’s ticking time bomb, SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE before demands for creative control lost him the job – he should have just phoned Richard Donner and saved time. Instead, Carpenter’s next project would be an oddball genre gumbo: an action film taking place almost entirely beneath San Francisco’s Chinatown and emphasizing Chinese mysticism and martial arts long before Hollywood began importing Hong Kong talent to choreograph THE MATRIX, CHARLIE’S ANGELS, et al. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA’s $25 million budget was by far the largest Carpenter had yet worked with, and not even adjusting that figure for inflation gives a proper indication of how big a price tag that was for an action-fantasy-comedy in 1986.
We must have thought that the film’s trailer was pretty good at 16, because we arrived dutifully early on that Independence Day weekend when the film opened, even though it turned out that we could have sat anywhere we wanted to in the nearly empty theater. Big Trouble in Little China recouped less than half its budget, sending Carpenter running back in the world of independent cinema, only to return twice – in 1992 to ruin H F Saint’s beautiful novel Memoirs of an Invisible Man with a sadly risible film version starring Chevy Chase, and again in 1996 in an attempt to ruin his own legacy with Escape From L.A. But we weren’t thinking, while sitting in that near-empty theater on the 4th of July all those years ago, that the film about to unspool would represent Carpenter’s last great creative leap forward – an orgasmic discharge that mixed ’30s screwball slapstick with ’70s Shaw Bros Kung-Fu, and wrapped in director of photography Dean Cundey’s trademarked Panavision flair. Carpenter would never get the keys to the candy store on this scale again.
If you’re reading this, then the chances are that you’re already familiar with the tale of Jack Burton and the Pork Chop Express (that would, of course, be his truck.) After dropping off his freight in San Francisco, Jack meets up with old friend Wang (the criminally underused Dennis Dun, who bookended Big Trouble in Little China with superior turns in Year of the Dragon and The Last Emperor) and drives him to the airport to pick up his fiancée from China. Also awaiting the plane are henchmen of the Wing Kong, a street gang working for David Lo Pan (the great James Hong, now 80 and still going strong), the leader of Chinese underworld in San Francisco who also happens to be a 200 year old wizard, cursed to walk the Earth until he marries and then sacrifices a girl with green eyes.
On their way to Lo Pan’s HQ to retrieve Wang’s bride-to-be, Jack and Wang wind up in the middle of a full-scale kung-fu showdown between the Wing Kong and the Chang Sing; but just as the Sing appear to gain the upper hand, 3 supernatural furies arrive – with powers representing lightning, thunder, and rain – and decimate the Chang Sing. Jack and Wang make an understandable dash for safety, but return to find Jack’s beloved truck gone. While regrouping at the home of tour bus driver and benevolent sorcerer Egg Shen (more memorable character work from the late Victor Wong, who’s death on 9/12/01 went sadly, but understandably, unreported), Jack and Wang pick up help from investigative reporter Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall, showing great chemistry with Russell that should have been capitalized on in other films). Soon this motley crew is off to Lo Pan’s mystical underground lair to retrieve Jack’s truck, Wang’s bride, and stop an ancient evil from spreading across the globe.
Now, if that brief synopsis makes sense to you – seek help, fast. The plot of Big Trouble in Little China reads like an opium hallucination and must have had executives at Fox more than a little anxious. While the Asian actors are uniformly great (particularly Victor Wong and James Hong who look like they’re having a blast), playing their roles with a wink, the success of the film rests squarely on the shoulders of star Russell. At the outset, Jack Burton appears to be a typical square-jawed hero in the Carpenter mode – a sarcastic Snake Plissken. But as the film progresses, we notice that Burton, who walks into every scene wearing a cocky half-sneer and spouting one eminently quotable line after another (usually mentioning himself in the 3rd person), is being used almost entirely for comic effect. Outrageous action happens around Burton, who never seems to get a handle on the mystical donnybrook that swirls around him.
Big Trouble in Little China gets endless mileage out of Russell’s pitch-perfect comic delivery: from his “Where’d you get that?” reaction when an opponent whips out a kung-fu weapon at the airport, to the frustrated shooting of a grotesque floating head during the climax (“Hey, you never know ‘till you try”), Russell earns buckets of laughs almost effortlessly. This is likely the prime reason the film failed to click with mass audiences; Fox pushed Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek adventure as a straight(ish) action piece, leaving lots of head scratching when the hero fires off a celebratory round of gunfire moments before the final action confrontation, only to be hit in the head by a chunk of ceiling and get knocked out cold for much of the fight. At the time, we thought that was the funniest thing we had ever laid eyes on, and little has happened since to amend that statement.
But for those who knew what the ride would be like when they bought the ticket, Big Trouble in Little China played like a dream come true. Younger folk who weren’t part of the movie-going public in 1986 probably can’t appreciate just how huge it was to have a large-scale Hollywood film embrace the Hong Kong martial arts shooting style on this scale. This was years before Jackie Chan, John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat broke down the walls of acceptance for HK cinema’s distinct style, and for those that were amenable to it, it was like having someone clean a filthy windshield and finally being able to see the world as it was meant to be seen. If this all sounds a bit too much, take a look at what was passing for action films in the earlier part of the decade, replete with listless warehouse shootouts and endless, stultifying shots of stuntmen flying off of trampolines. Somehow, Carpenter found a way to successfully fold these elements into the comic framework of Russell’s Jack Burton, creating this odd-duck masterpiece. We revisit this show just about annually to marvel at his weaving together of such desperate elements and lament the creative spiral that began for the director not long after this film’s release.
Fox’s eagerly awaited Blu-Ray of Big Trouble in Little China adds a DTS isolated score track, but otherwise appears to be a reissue of their 2-disc DVD set of several years back. We’re very pleased to report that the Blu-Ray looks fabulous, offering a giant leap in terms of color and detail over the previous 2-disc edition. We can only hope that every vintage film gets this sort of treatment.
A selection of deleted scenes and an extended ending (many of which are from a workprint) are on-hand, in addition to a featurette from 1986. A BTS stills gallery is included, along with the original theatrical trailer, to give an indication of what Fox thought the best marketing route would be. (There’s no question that the film was a tough sell; who is this Jack Burton guy anyway? Is he a joke? Why does he spend half of the film’s final fight scene unconscious? ) We’re sure that Ms. Cattrall’s agent enjoyed seeing her prominent billing on the disc artwork (is Fox shooting for Sex and the City fans?) though Mr. Russell’s might feel differently.
The most important extra, however, is the commentary track featuring Carpenter and Russell. They’ve previously recorded chats for Escape from New York and The Thing (though all three are several years old by now), and their tracks together have long been considered the high watermark of the art form; it may sound trite, but it truly is like sitting with two friends reminiscing over dinner. On the Big Trouble in Little China commentary track, Carpenter and Russell lay into the Fox marketing dept hard, placing a lot of the blame for the film’s dismal box office performance at their feet. Carpenter is wildly unpredictable on his own, but like their film collaborations, being in each other’s company seems to bring out the best in each other.
May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.
SEPTEMBER 30 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA
"Big Trouble in Little China" was a major bomb when it was released into theaters in 1986. John Carpenter and Kurt Russell were both bankable stars, but the film managed to gross just over eleven million dollars. This was half of the reported twenty five million dollar budget and soured director Carpenter´s taste towards Hollywood productions. Oddly, the film has found a second wind on home video and cable television and has since gathered a strong cult following and for many, "Big Trouble in Little China" is the favorite collaboration between Carpenter and Russell after the pair previously worked together on films such as "Escape From New York" and "The Thing." "Big Trouble in Little China" now finds another opportunity to expand its audience over twenty years later with the release of the film onto the high definition Blu-ray format.
In the film, former Disney actor Russell stars as Jack Burton, an adventurous truck driver that glamorizes his own existence over the CB radio and swindles his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) out of as much money as possible. Wang owns a restaurant, but finds himself out of a sizable amount of money. He cannot pay Jack immediately and asks Jack to take him to the airport to pick up the woman he plans to marry, a green-eyed Asian girl named Miao Yin (Suzee Pai). A lawyer named Gracie Law and portrayed by "Sex in the City" star Kim Cattrall catches Burton´s eye at the airport, but Miao is kidnapped by a Chinatown gang and taken away in a red Pontiac Firebird. While he doesn´t feel bad taking all of Wang´s money, Jack decides to help his friend recover the love of his life, but this lands him into trouble in Little China.
Jack and Wang pull his truck the Pork Chop Express into an alleyway and find themselves in the middle of a gun fight between two rival gangs and then a "Chinese Standoff" that results in a knife fight. It may seem confusing as to why the gangs decide to put down the guns and use conventional Chinese weaponry, but that is the least of their worries. Three ´Storms´ appear from the sky and can conjure lightning bolts from their hand and their magical powers force Jack to bring out a knife for defense. They are just the first spiritual arrival to the alley as a Chinese sorcerer named Lo Pan (James Hong) appears in front of the fleeing Pork Chop Express and is run over by the truck, but mysteriously survives. This forces Jack and Wang to flee the scene and they soon find themselves captured by the gang that had taken Miao in the red F-body.
The story continues and Wang and Jack are joined by a bus driver named Egg Shen (Victor Wong) who is far more than he seems and is another old sorcerer pitted in a long struggle against Lo Pan. A writer working with Gracie named Margo (Kate Burton) and Wang´s cousin Eddie (Donald Li) also join in the fight to recover Miao and bring down Lo Pan. It turns out that Lo Pan is the spiritual embodiment of reclusive businessman David Lo Pan and that he needs to marry a girl with green eyes in order to become younger as Lo Pan is far older than a normal human. The adventure takes Wang and Jack into sewage systems and into elevators that seem to only ever go down. Eventually a big fight ensues and with the aid of Egg, Jack and Wang rescue the women they care for and the "Big Trouble in Little China" is ridden for now.
I have to admit that before researching "Big Trouble in Little China" for this review, I did not realize the film was such a horrendous flop. I can remember my friend Johnny "Zap" loving this film like there was no tomorrow and we´d watch it whenever we could. The film always seemed like campy fun and I enjoyed the different angle of Chinese mysticism. Sure, the fight scenes and dialogue dripped with cheese, but back in the Eighties there were so many of these over-the-top fun action films that were both comedic and adventurous that "Big Trouble in Little China" never seemed like a stinker. It felt no worse than the two film Michael Douglas series that began with "Romancing the Stone."
The fact is that "Big Trouble in Little China" is very silly and Russell´s performance is, as many have stated, his channeling of John Wayne. Compared to "Escape from New York," Snake Plissken is the deepest character you´ll ever meet as Jack Burton is just one stereotype after another strung together. It is still fun, but this movie is an at-the-time expensive B-Movie that shouldn´t have tried to take itself as seriously as it did. The fight scenes between the heroes and the villains are not very well choreographed and the action is pretty flat. "Big Trouble in Little China" needs to ride on the shoulders of Russell to rise above mediocrity and it is Victor Wong who steals scene after scene in a supporting role. Cattrall was only twenty eight when the film was released and was quite the sexy vixen at the time, but they hardly utilize her as anything more than a background role.
"Big Trouble in Little China" is fun, but it is far more camp than it is capable. If you watch the film with an expectation that this is nothing to be taken with a smidgeon of seriousness, then you can reach the end credits with a smile and an appreciation for this twenty-two year old fun with a feeling similar to what it feels like sitting through an old "Evil Dead" movie. If anything, "Big Trouble in Little China" is a parody of the action/comedy genre that thrived during the Eighties and John Carpenter missed the mark far enough that years later we can laugh at his misstep and still find entertainment. The old adage is that something can be so bad that it becomes good and "Big Trouble in Little China" is a perfect example that this can be true. Many of these box office disasters become a cult classic for this reason and this is one of them. I can watch the film every once in a while and be entertained and that speaks to the simple fact it is a wildly entertaining cheesefest although it was never intended to be as such.
SEPTEMBER 30 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA
So here you are, John Carpenter, right? No really, just go with me on this one.
You make a couple of films in the 1970s, straight out of college, and they do ... okay. That is to say, they do okay after the fact. Lots of critical acclaim but no one seems to notice until after the movies have been on TV some years later. Penniless and trying to make ends meet, you whip up a cheapo flick starring nobodies and one character actor with a lackluster career. BAM! You've got HALLOWEEN and though it didn't make much money at the theaters, it cost even less to make, so the sucker is profitable.
But here is the thing: The movie is out of the theater houses while people are still talking about it. The talk grows. Nobody can see the damn thing but the talk grows. The majority of the buying public on the earth don't have VCRs in 1978. The few that do have beta machines which only play for one hour and then you pop in another tape. The idea of video renting is being tossed about but it won't be until 1981 when it really comes into its own in a major way.
In the meantime your HALLOWEEN film is busting all over the art house theaters and making you squat. Happy investors though. Happy enough to fund HALLOWEEN II.
So you make it. People flock to it, it makes more money than the first one, yet people moan and groan about how it's not as good. So you make THE FOG. You make THE THING, you make movie after movie and every damn time the story is the same. They do anywhere from mediocre to crash and burn at the box office, only to become legends after the run is over.
And legends don't get rich: They just get talked about.
So let me say up front that John Carpenter is one of my favorite movie directors of all time. Yet my favorite movies from him are in his 1970s - 1980s period. I haven't liked a damn thing he has made in the 1990s on up - just like Cronenberg, another favorite of mine. Is it because I got old and outgrew his films? Nope. Because I still love those old ones. Like BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, for example.
This is a Horror film that has it all. Or maybe it's a Romantic Comedy that has it all. Then again, it could be an action flick that has it all, or even a martial arts flick that has it all. Or perhaps it's just a fantasy flick that has it all. Why, it could even be a...
"So we mix it up. Take what we want and leave the rest. Like your salad bar."
In the world of film making, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is the Chinese buffet of movies.
It starts out after the fact. All hell broke loose in China Town and a man named Egg Shen (Victor Wong: John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS, TREMORS) is talking to his lawyer. The fiend (lawyer) is trying to keep his client out of trouble by striking a deal. "Give us the whereabouts of Jack Burton."
Egg won't budge. A debt of honor and gratitude are owed Jack (Kurt Russell: John Carpenter's THE THING, John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, DEATH PROOF). So the film starts in the past (like all good Chinese legends) beginning with Jack, the truck driver, hauling his 18 wheeler into San Francisco and China Town. Jack's rig is called the Pork Chop Express, because he delivers live pigs to the markets. Jack yaps on his Citizen's Band radio, unmindful and uncaring if anyone is listening or not. He throws his voice out into the night like a young, blowhard Art Bell, letting the sound fall where it may. Jack's idea of free speech is very Zen.
After the delivery and a few games of chance with his Chinese friends, he finds himself playing chauffuer to his edgy pal, Wang Lee (Dennis Dunn: John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS). They go to the airport to pick up Wang's fiance, Maio Yin (Suzee Pai), fresh from the mainland, who he hasn't seen in 5 years. Some pretty boy gangsta scum come around looking for trouble and Merry Mishaps occur.
This movie is legendary for being the first and probably only Hollywood movie to employ pretty much every Chinese/American actor alive at the time. Then they imported a few from Hong Kong and China!
Jack is us, an outsider to a world he feels comfortable in. His job is here and he's loyal to his money. His friends are here and he's loyal to them. But what he's about to see will turn his whole point of view on China Town upside down.
China has had dynastic rule that measures in the thousands of years. No other country comes close. Even modern day Chinese communism is hardcore loyal to the way the old emperors ruled and maintain that tyranny to this day, even if they call it something else. So there is an awful lot of history there, passed down more by word of mouth than writing.
"The Chinese have a lot of Hells."
Enter into this mindset the form of one David Lo Pan: Wealthy merchant and feared crime lord. A man so private that no one has seen him in 20 years. What we soon discover is that David Lo Pan (James Hong: GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS!, COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, BLADE RUNNER, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL ) is actually the Chinese Demon Spirit Lo Pan. A cursed human of no flesh who wanders the world as a dream: a nightmare.
But this nightmare can lift his curse and become flesh again if he marries a very special woman: a woman with green eyes. But green eyes are not enough. For she must also be able to survive "The Burning Blade" and "Tame the Savage Heart". Only a woman who embodies all of these qualities can appease Lo Pan's God and lift his curse. When this onus was put on Lo Pan in ancient times, it was considered an impossible mission.
"Chinese girls don't come with green eyes."
After over 2,000 years of waiting and suffering (of course demons suffer! They're in hell! Duh!), Lo Pan is willing to cheat to influence outcomes. He's vicious, mean, crusty, crabby, murderous, villanous, but at the same time, pitiful.
"I'm not about to wait another two thousand years!"
Jack Burton is a laconic, likable, big mouth with an "Ash" attitude. This Duke Nukem machismo would probably work if he was John Wayne. Unfortunately, Jack is more bluster than business. Though he's adequately buff, he's also naive, klutzy and a nimrod. He leaps into trouble without plan or strategy, thinks the world will work the way he imagines, and finds himself frequently caught short when real life hits him repeatedly between the eyes. Jack often finds himself being saved as much as he does any saving.
"It's all in the reflexes."
His pal/partner is a hyper martial arts expert who, when he's not threatening to take someone's life, is frenzedly running like hell to save his own.
Enter into this mix a white girl lawyer (yes, this film has two of them!), Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall: SPLIT SECOND), who hangs out in China Town trying to bring American justice and freedom to a people who don't want a busy-body caucasian nosing around in their multi-millennia years old trouble where she doesn't belong. Then add another white girl (yes, this film has two of them); Margo (Kate Burton: SWIMFAN, STAY) a struggling reporter trying to get her big story, big break, and the only potential interracial love interest in the flick (China Town don't need white guys come sniffing around after their women and Jack can't fathom women of his own culture, let alone a strange one).
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is wacked out, ribald, hilarious, serious, dramatic, horrific, tense, suspenseful, inane, slapstick and satirical, and all without being insulting to any race or belief. Let's see anyone else BUT John Carpenter do that!
John Carpenter appreciates his fans like few celebrities do. He made an appearance at the 2001 San Diego Comic Convention and took as much time as his fans wanted with each and every one of them. I had (what I thought at first) was the honor of being assigned as his personal handler.
Now Actors and actresses often have "handlers" to deflect the damnation of the fans (like you!) who, after waiting for 2 hours in line, see their object of affection suddenly get up and walk out, saying, "I hate to run, but my (agent, manager, handler) tells me I have to go!"
And you stood there for two hours and got NOTHING!
Well I was John's handler at this convention and my boss didn't want anyone getting more than one personal autograph, as the line was tremendous and the fans, restless.
As I stood there like the 6 foot 2 inch goofy beaming fanboy I am, I saw my boss, far on the other side of the mob, going ape. her eyes bulged from across the room as she waved frantically and her hands threatened VooDoo curses over the heads of the fans because I wasn't doing enough to "Hurry these folks the hell along."
So I put my 'Move yer ass!' hustle into overdrive.
John, would have none of it.
"Don't tell these people what to do." he quietly chided me.
"Mr. Carpenter," I whispered back. "My boss is over there giving me hell. She only wants one autograph per person."
That was SO the wrong thing to say!
Louder now, John fired back,
"These folks aren't her fans, they're MINE!" he hissed. "And I'll take as much time with them as I WANT!"
Just like that!
There I was, suddenly feeling like Jack Burton in the midst of another blunder. And that line was so long! And John was giving every one of his fans his utmost undivided attention; posing for pictures; even kissing babies; as I stood there forever; thinking to myself, 'Ah! So THIS is what it means to feel like a shmuck!'
Like Jack, I ignored the reality of the situation and went and angered John! The very first time I meet one of my idols and then I go and piss the poor bastard off! Guess who DIDN'T get a personal autograph?
I've seen this movie more times than I've counted. If it comes on TV while I'm flipping through channels I'll stop and watch it right through. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is more fun than funny, with exposition that is cheeseball enough to sink it in the hands of a lesser director. But John Carpenter was savvy enough to understand the difference between cheesy and funky. Without a single wink and nod to the audience or one lame-o topical reference (which really age a film like nothing else), John made a movie that stands up nearly 20 years later. He did this with rapid machine gun fire expostion and straight delivery. The cornier the line, the straighter it's delivered. Thus, the more appealing it is.
"We have one of our best men in there right now: Stirring the pot!"
Even more, because the movie starts out as a foregone conclusion, we are in the right frame of mind even when this movie is shown 1,000 years from now. We already know it took place in the past.
Some of the SFX are great. Some are mind bogglingly camp. It's all in keeping with the spirit of the film. Kudos for some of the effects go to Richard Edlund (THE MANITOU, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, GHOST BUSTERS, POLTERGIEST, FRIGHT NIGHT, GHOST, SPECIES, ALIEN³).
Not to be outdone is costume designer April Ferry (CHILD'S PLAY, LEVIATHAN, DONNIE DARKO, FRAILTY), who gives us the flavor and belief in an Ancient Chinese curse living in the U.S., and a micro-culture compressed into a typical U.S. city with ways and laws still influenced by the Motherland.
Getting back to the start of this review: The problem that John has is that it takes years for his movies to be recognized as truly great, innovative films. People were writing articles about Dark Star ten years later in 1985. HALLOWEEN was still getting its due ten years later in 1988. THE THING, from 1982, is only now being truly recognized (2002 sees a cool computer game based on John's version of Joseph W. Campbell's story). When your fate is history always exonerating your art, what do you care what a reviewer like me thinks of your latest (I trashed GHOSTS OF MARS)? In 10 years I'll probably change my tune (though I doubt it. I still haven't changed my mind about his yawn inducing, THE FOG).
But I digress. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is one of John's all time best! Go into it understanding from the start that Sorcerers will battle. Damsel's will be distressed. Spirits will come alive in magnificent performances by Thunder (Carter Wong: SHAO LIN XIONG DI), a wild eyed Wind (Peter Kwong), and Rain (James Pax aka James Pak: THE HEROIC TRIO). A good time will be had by all. Unless you're a heartless fiend. Or a lawyer.
There is so much going on with this film that to describe it well is the same as reading the whole script to you. So take my advice (if you trust it!) and rent or buy one of John Carpenter's finest! BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA!
Five Shriek Girls.