John Carpenter and Kurt Russell teamed up for several classic films in the 1980s. Big Trouble In Little China was a box office failure upon release, blamed on studio interference. Years of success on home video and television have turned it into a cult classic, garnering the recognition it deserved in the first place. It is the type of comedic adventure flick that Hollywood so often fails to make today, done in a tongue-in-cheek style. The zany martial arts action and special effects make for a memorable combination. But, Kurt Russell’s hammy performance as the swaggering Jack Burton is outrageous fun and the real driving force behind its success.
Tough-talking truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is a walking cliché, the supposed uber-hero so common to action films. Russell plays the entire role with a wink towards the audience, in a wildly over-the-top performance as Burton attempts to rescue his best friend’s fiancée from being kidnapped by a 2000-year-old Chinese magician, Lo Pan (James Hong). Along the way he ends up in a romance with Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and gets entangled in a conflict between warring Chinese clans inside San Francisco’s Chinatown.
While Jack Burton is a blowhard, his admirable traits of loyalty and selfless heroism for his friend, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), help to win over the audience. Wang’s fiancée has emerald green eyes, the one trait the evil David Lo Pan is searching for in a bride so he can become immortal. Lo Pan’s time is nearing an end and only finding a bride with that mystical power can save him. Lo Pan is played with abandon by David Hong, making the near-immortal wizard one of the best villains from the decade.
Big Trouble In Little China is an adventure film with a heavy nod to classic kung fu movies of the 1970s, using many notable actors from that genre such as Carter Wong. Many videogame fans of the Mortal Kombat series will see the original inspiration for Lord Raiden and his mastery of lightning. Like other cult classics, this movie had a huge impact on pop culture.
The effects look dated and the entire production design relies too much on using Chinese ethnic stereotypes. Allowing that, Big Trouble In Little China’s sense of fun and adventure stands the test of time as a great movie. Everything the movie does works well, from its memorable characters to the effects-filled finale. It is one of the best movies made during the 1980s.
Arrow Video has almost certainly used the same film source and transfer used by Fox for their Region A Blu-ray. Dean Cundey’s cinematography is awash in dark black levels, heavy grain, and modest detail. It was never going to look pristine on Blu-ray; the movie was shot with many optical effects, effectively limiting its ultimate resolution and clarity.
There is not much of a difference between Arrow’s disc and Fox’s release in terms of picture quality. Arrow has given the transfer a newer AVC video encode, so miniscule improvements to the thick grain structure can be seen. The technical specifications are beyond reproach, maxing out the parameters for the 100-minute main feature to fill a BD-50.
The original film transfer itself is old, one that was already dated when Fox released it in 2009. The print shows little direct wear, though the soft, hazy look indicates an older HD telecine likely intended for DVD. A new film scan would definitely look better, though the transfer as-is represents modest improvements in definition and clarity. The best thing that can be said about it is the lack of notable sharpening, leaving a mostly film-like image with minor traces of possible DNR.
All together, picture quality is mixed. There are improvements on this BD to be seen but striking a new film transfer from pristine elements would have reaped larger benefits. It does appear that Arrow slightly re-framed the transfer, trimming it a tiny bit but still preserving the native aspect ratio of 2.39:1.
For a film made in the 1980s, Big Trouble In Little China has an expansive 5.1 mix, presented in a lossless DTS-HD MA soundtrack. Purists can hear the narrower 2.0 PCM stereo mix, though I felt the more dynamic surround mix was the clear winner in terms of fidelity and impact. Action scenes have big and obvious sound FX. A few moments have tremendous low bass, adding a real sense of immersion for critical moments.
One of the best extra features is Carpenter’s score, presented in isolated form by way of a 5.1 DTS-HD MA presentation. As always, I think isolated scores are a great addition to any Blu-ray. This soundtrack is a fine example of Carpenter’s scoring.
English SDH subtitles appear in a white font, unfortunately falling outside the 2.39:1 framing of the main feature.
UK distributor Arrow Video has committed itself to releasing authoritative editions of the movies it releases on Blu-ray, often with lavish artwork. Big Trouble In Little China continues the trend, arriving with all-new interviews exclusive to this BD on top of the supplements brought over from Fox’s American disc. Consumers also have the option of getting the set in a limited edition Steelbook packaging. This UK Blu-ray is coded for Region B, so North Americans will need a multi-region BD player to play it.
Unexpectedly, the new interviews are shockingly candid from John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. Carpenter talks about the difficulties he had with Asian community leaders and the studio. Highly worth watching for long-time fans.
- Audio Commentary with director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell
- Return to Little China – A brand new interview with John Carpenter (12:16 in HD)
- Being Jack Burton – A brand new interview with Kurt Russell (20:59 in HD)
- Carpenter and I – A brand new interview with cinematographer Dean Cundey (15:40 in HD)
- Producing Big Trouble – A new interview with producer Larry Franco (15:23 in HD)
- Staging Little Trouble – A new interview with stuntman Jeff Imada (12:32 in HD)
- Interview with visual effects producer Richard Edlund (13:25 in HD)
- Vintage Making-of featurette featuring cast and crew
- Extended Ending
- Deleted Scenes
- Music Video
- Gallery of behind-the-scenes images
- 3 original trailers
- TV Spots
- Reversible Sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jay Shaw
- Booklet featuring new writing on the film by John Kenneth Muir, author of The Films of John Carpenter, a re-print of an article on the effects of the film from American Cinematographer, illustrated with archive stills and posters
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