Even in the eclectic resume of John Carpenter which runs from the science fiction stoner comedy of his 1974 debut Dark Star through the western influenced police station siege of Assault on Precinct 13, a slew of classic horror films including 1978’s genre defining slasher Hallowe’en and the more traditional ghost revenger The Fog, the ultimate alien invasion body horror of The Thing, the dystopian action of Escape from New York and a surprising brush with interstellar romance in Starman, 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China is an oddity, described by the director as “an action adventure comedy Kung-Fu ghost story monster movie,” or to put it more concisely, “everything you can imagine.”
Released this week on Blu-ray with an extensive package of extras to support the high definition print, the key point reinforced in the numerous interviews which include Carpenter, star Kurt Russell, cinematographer Dean Cundey and producer Larry Franco is that the biggest threat to the film was not David Lo Pan, the “ghost who plays at being a man, a creature of vast dark destructive power,” but the executives of 20th Century Fox who lost faith in the film at the first screening.
While Carpenter is philosophical, saying that “the studio was very unhappy” and that “it was not a fun experience,” Russell is more direct: “It was buried,” saying that the marketing campaign “was like sabotage it was so bad.” Franco, judiciously refusing to name those he holds responsible, feels that it was the triple burn of the lukewarm studio reception of The Thing, now regarded as a classic of both horror and science fiction which in turn led to Carpenter losing the director’s role on Firestarter followed by the demands and lack of support on Big Trouble in Little China which caused Carpenter to forsake Hollywood and return to his independent filmmaker roots for Prince of Darkness and They Live.
Though it may not seem much by modern standards, for the time, $20 million was a respectable budget; for comparison, 1986’s number one hit was the $15 million Top Gun, and also released the same year was the $18.5 million Aliens and the $21 million Star Trek IV The Voyage Home, though all fared considerably better at the box office than Big Trouble in Little China whose domestic gross of $11 million was even beaten by Howard the Duck, conclusively proving quality is no predicator of success.
Regular Carpenter lead Kurt Russell is Jack Burton, a divorced truck driver with a taste for beer, gambling and women whose friendship with Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi leads them both into trouble when Wang’s fiancée is kidnapped by members of the Lords of Death gang.
Chasing them in Jack’s rig, they arrive in the streets of Chinatown to witness a funeral procession being attacked by two rival factions, one of them led by the ancient and powerful sorcerer Lo Pan.
With his truck stolen and Miao Yin held captive by the Lords of Death, Jack and Wang attempt to rescue her with the assistance of lawyer Gracie Law and her journalist friend Margo Litzenberger, but quickly find themselves outmatched, and Miao is seized by the Three Storms, powerful elemental entities in the employ of Lo Pan who believes that sacrificing the green-eyed Miao will break the curse he has lived under for centuries.
Descending into the underground labyrinth, the film becomes an extended series of action sequences as Jack and Wang face the creatures that inhabit Lo Pan’s lair and his numerous henchmen including the Three Storms before their friend Egg Shen challenges the sorcerer with his own magic.
Atypical for an action film of the time, although Kurt Russell was the biggest star in the film and received top billing, Jack Burton was not the hero of the piece. “I didn’t buy we had to copy Rambo or Indiana Jones to be successful,” Carpenter recalls, pointing out that while Burton thinks he is the hero of the film, he is actually the sidekick. “Kurt was game to play that part.”
While Russell later established himself as a comedy actor in Overboard where he starred opposite his long term partner Goldie Hawn, at the time he was only known for dramatic roles, and while happy to play up the humour in the part, wearing a silk dressing gown in one scene, allowing himself to be knocked out before a major fight scene, even suggesting that after kissing Kim Cattrall he should have lipstick smeared on him for the rest of the scene, 20th Century Fox had expected a much more traditional lead.
“We both loved it,” Russell states. “We never stopped to ask – would anybody else?”
With Russell best known for playing rough, rugged and terse, here he’s aiming for charming and quite deliberately missing while it is Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi who is shown to be the brains driving the rescue and the more capable fighter, though he had no prior martial arts experience, as well as an excellent dramatic actor as he later demonstrated as a lead on three seasons of Midnight Caller.
“Dennis carried the movie,” Russell states, with Carpenter saying he and Dun became close friends while filming.
Another of the cast Carpenter singles out for praise is Kim Cattrall, a jobbing actress who had worked in television and supporting roles for a decade before finally achieving recognition and success, Big Trouble in Little China was one of her first lead roles.
“I love Kim, I love working with Kim. Unbelievable comic timing, unbelievable comic invention.” That she is now an internationally recognised star is no surprise, and here, even when frequently required to deliver expositionary dialogue, her performance is intense and sparkling, yet still the studio remained unconvinced.
One of the changes made was the creation of a prologue where Victor Wong’s Egg Shen explains the circumstances of the story to a sceptical lawyer played by Jerry Hardin, best known as Shadow Conspiracy informer Deep Throat on The X Files, demonstrating his magical abilities in order to sell the story to the audience and also to emphasise Jack Burton as the hero of the piece.
Originally conceived as a turn of the century western by screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Z Weinstein, the script was comprehensively rewritten by W D Richter whose script for Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers was also set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Two years previously Richter had directed The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, and like that film Big Trouble in Little China throws everything in the pot, even the characters observing it’s “like some radical Alice in Wonderland.”
Carpenter recognised that the material was challenging, but believed he would be supported by the studio, saying it was “absurd, but I had the script to fall back on, and I didn’t write the script, and everybody at 20th Century Fox had read it.” Along with Starman and Memoirs of an Invisble Man, these are the only “family” films Carpenter has directed and Big Trouble in Little China is his only overt fantasy, but his minimalist style, almost documentary, fits less comfortably than it does in his thrillers and horrors, the fantastical requiring a more flamboyant style.
Where Carpenter excels, however, is in orchestrating his large cast in the impressive sets crafted by John J Lloyd, an accomplished production designer who used forced perspective to make them seem even larger, with vast battle scenes of Chinese gangs armed with guns and more traditional weapons, choreographed routines beyond any of the street tussles of Escape from New York, the number of characters and extras and locations all beyond the sparse minimalism of Assault on Precinct 13, Hallowe’en or The Thing.
Included in the package is a vintage behind the scenes feature which even with degraded picture and sound demonstrates how much work went into the sets and the costumed extras, all without digital assistance. With a commentary from Carpenter and Russell, deleted scenes, an extended ending, and a music video for the title song featuring Carpenter’s band the Coupe de Villes, despite it not being the best of Carpenter’s extensive output, it’s difficult to deny the truth in Russell’s claim about the film at the time of release: “You get your five bucks worth.”
Big Trouble in Little China is now available on Blu-ray and as a limited edition steelbook