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Director John Carpenter's career has been somewhat unusual to say the least. The success of HALLOWEEN made him something of a household name; well, his name has appeared above the title on all his subsequent films. However, almost all of those films have met with a negative (sometimes hostile) critical reaction and tepid box office receipts. Still, Carpenter has a huge following and his films always manage to find a second life on home video- many of which have become cult favorites. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA ($27) is a prime example of this John Carpenter movie phenomenon. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was totally misunderstood and mis-marketed by the studio that released it, completely written off by the critics and thoroughly ignored by audiences. However, time and the magic of home video has done wonders for the reputation of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA.

In hindsight, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA turned out to be a visionary film that has achieved its cult following for good reason- American audiences finally discovered Hong Kong Cinema. Back in 1986, when BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was released, Hong Kong Cinema was a virtually unknown quantity in the United States and wouldn't begin to enjoy large-scale popularity over here for almost another decade. Unfortunately for John Carpenter and company, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a Hong Kong action movie laced with heavy doses of martial arts, Chinese mysticism and offbeat humor. Is it any wonder that the studio, the critics and audiences had no clue what to make of this movie?

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA stars Kurt Russell as truck driver Jack Burton. Jack is likable guy with a big swagger, but all too often he engages him mouth or his fists long before he engages his brain. After making a delivery in San Francisco's Chinatown, Jack engages in a little gambling and wins a tidy sum from Wang Chi (Dennis Dun). However, collecting his money involves a little side trip to the airport to pick up Wang's arriving green-eyed fiancée Miao Yin (Suzee Pai). Unfortunately, a Chinese street gang kidnaps Miao Yin at the airport. In hot pursuit of the kidnappers, the trail leads Jack and Wang beneath the streets of Chinatown, where they encounter a two thousand year old sorcerer named Lo Pan (James Hong), who is searching for a green-eyed bride who can fulfill a prophecy that will make him flesh and blood once more. With the aid of the beautiful green-eyed Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and a Chinese magician named Egg Shen (Victor Wong), Jack and Wang infiltrate Lo Pan's underground lair to rescue Miao Yin. Director Carpenter really does a great job with the material, capturing the flavor of a typical Hong Kong action movie, while stirring in just enough humor to remind one of a Jackie Chan outing. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA also includes some inspired martial arts fighting that many will see as a precursor to what was seen in THE MATRIX- another American film that was greatly influenced by Hong Kong Cinema, albeit more than a decade later.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has made BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA available on DVD in a 2.35:1 wide screen presentation that has been enhanced for playback on 16:9 displays. First up, let me say that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA looks better on DVD than it ever has in the past. If your only experience with the film has been a pan and scan presentation, then the DVD will truly be a treat. John Carpenter is one of the few directors who consistently compose for the entire 2.35:1 canvas, so this release may be the first time many viewers will get to see all of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. The image on the DVD is really nice, appearing cleaner, sharper and more detailed than it has in the past. Some portions of the movie are slightly soft looking, but this is due to the way it was photographed and the film stocks in use at the time of the production. Color reproduction is fairly impressive, with the hues appearing quite strong and vibrant. Reds and greens are especially well rendered, plus the flesh tones are very natural looking. There are no signs of chroma noise or smearing anywhere during the presentation. Blacks are pretty inky and the level of shadow detail is good for a film of this vintage. The element used for the transfer is free from excessive markings, with a few minor blemishes being the only sign of age. A wee bit of film grain can be glimpsed during much of the presentation, but it is never distracting. Digital compression artifacts are tamed by clean dual layer authoring.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is offered on DVD with a Dolby Digital 4.1 channel sound mix, as well as a DTS 5.1 channel sound mix. Despite the numerical differences, both tracks are mastered from the same pre-matrixed Dolby Surround stems. Being a typical eighties mix, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is front heavy, with the monaural surround channels being used primarily for ambient sound and musical fill. There are a few active effects in the rear channels, but the implementation is constricted by the older sound format's frequency limitations. The forward soundstage fares much better, with decidedly cleaner channel separation that gives genuine stereo imaging to the sound effects and the music. Dialogue reproduction is clean and fully intelligible, at least when the characters are speaking English. The bass channel is pretty solid, delivering just enough punch when required. The John Carpenter/Alan Howarth music sounds pretty lively and is reproduced with very good fidelity. As for the DTS track, it sounds pretty much the same, although the higher bit rate makes for a slightly fuller sound. English and French Dolby Surround soundtracks are also encoded onto the DVD, as are English and Spanish subtitles.

Clever 3-D animation and sound dresses up the interactive menus. Through the menu system, one has access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as some very nice supplements. Although the bulk of the supplements reside on disc two, the first DVD does include a wonderfully entertaining running commentary with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. Both men are having a grand old time reminiscing about making BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and their enthusiasm for the film is infectious. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this funny and informative commentary; ‘m sure that other Carpenter/Russell fans will feel the same about the track. Also included in the set is a 10-minute making-of featurette produced at the time of the film's release. The featurette looks a little rough and is pretty much a PR puff piece. Fans should find the included deleted scenes and alternate ending far more interesting than the featurette. This material wasn't carefully preserved, with much of it coming from John Carpenter's Beta dubs of the footage.

A cool new feature is an interview with special effects wizard Richard Edlund in which he discusses certain sequences within the film. Utilizing the multiple angle feature and picture-in-picture windowing, the viewer can get up close and personal with whatever Edlund is discussing. There are two magazine articles on BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA presented on the DVD as well. These articles originally appeared in Cinefex and American Cinematographer magazines and have been augmented with interactive content. One will also find a rather extensive still gallery comprised of production photos and publicity materials. Another nice inclusion is the Coupe De Villes music video for the movie's theme song, which runs under the end titles. For those who don't know, the Coupe De Villes is one of director John Carpenter's musical outlets. By the way, the video is fairly hilarious for its eighties music video excesses and is almost worth the price of admission on its own. Theatrical trailers, TV spots, production notes and cast filmographies close out the DVD's supplements.

I'm a big fan of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and am delighted to have such a great, feature packed DVD in my possession. Kudos to Fox for producing something that John Carpenter fan will love. Recommended to them and anyone that enjoys Hong Kong Cinema.


Big Trouble in Little China (Special...


DVD reviews are Copyright © 2001 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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