BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA **** USA 1986 Dir: John Carpenter. 99 mins
Awkwardly marketed by 20th Century Fox and unloved upon its release, this bold, brash genre mash-up proved a commercial failure that sent the filmmaker back to indie genre pictures, starting with PRINCE OF DARKNESS – which carries over two of its stars, Victor Wong and Dennis Dun. Adorned with another pulsing musical collaboration by Carpenter and Alan Howarth, this movie feels more refreshingly offbeat today than it ever was.
Kurt Russell, in his fourth team-up with the director, relishes his lead role as a cocky, ingratiating everyman trucker with a John Wayne drawl and a tendency to appear foolish during tense moments. An airport altercation that ends in the abduction of his pal’s girlfriend leads him into an elaborate adventure involving ancient prophecies, Chinese Gods, tour guide Victor Wong and arch-villain Lo-Pan (James Hong). This sets out its stall early on with a terrific Chinese stand-off in an alley-way that culminates with the entrance of Hong’s unique, genuinely intimidating uber bad guy.
Running alongside all the attempts to make its own hero look ridiculous (witness the occasional donning of dorky glasses, nerd clothes and lipstick) are rousing martial arts sequences and a fine line in droll wit (“The Chinese got a lot of Hells!”). Sporting a vest and mullet and game for anything, Russell is huge fun to watch, while Kim Cattrall is a typically feisty Carpenter heroine. It’s easy to see why, in retrospect, Fox had no idea what to do with a movie that is far more bizarre than the Indiana Jones clone they yearned for : with its cameoing bug-eyed monsters, floating disembodied heads and wonderfully naff title song by Carpenter’s band, it holds up as one of the wildest and most imaginative major studio pictures of its time.
Review by Steven West