Thursday, March 17, 2016

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

I'm not sure why I titled this movie review "Blast from the Past" considering I only saw some snippets of Big Trouble In Little China when I was in elementary school, but it is for the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. Here's the podcast.

And now for the review...

The Plot

Trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) find themselves mixed up in ancient magic dating all the way back to the infamous First Emperor of China. Mayhem ensues as they--along with the elderly Egg Shen (Victor Wong) who is more than he appears--have to rescue Wang's fiancee Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) and Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) from a street gang who's kidnapped them and evil undead sorcerer Lo Pan who seeks to marry one and sacrifice the other...

The Good

*The filmmakers are clearly familiar with the dictum "show don't tell." Rather than explaining that trucker Burton is friends with the Chinese community in San Francisco, they start out the film with him pulling his truck into Chinatown and sitting down with Wang and a bunch of his friends for a traditional sort of gambling. It's depicted as though it's just another night for him.

*The film plays with genre conventions. The hunky lantern-jawed white male ostensible lead Burton is only intermittently competent, while Wang, who'd be the plucky ethnic sidekick in most films, is the real mover and shaker. During the podcast, Daniel said that the movie is a deconstruction of a lot of movie tropes and a lot of people don't understand that. He's right. According to TVTropes, the filmmakers intended the movie to be an even more blatant subversion of Mighty Whitey, but the studio executives prevented that. I asked on the podcast if Burton or Wang was the protagonist and although I didn't get the chance to mention this, the notion reminded me of someone on the Harry Potter fan-site FictionAlley forum who claimed Hermione was the real protagonist of the series and that Harry was the "frontkick."

*When Burton confronts a group of human traffickers at the San Francisco airport, things don't go well for him. Always watch your six, especially if you already know there's more than one enemy. This does a good job expositing that Burton, though brave and good-hearted, clearly acts first and thinks later.

*Wang's characterization (initially) avoids stereotypes--he's neither a wimpy geeky guy, nor is he a Bruce Lee karate master type either. At least at first...

*There's a Chinatown funeral parade in one scene. In Chinese culture, white is the color of mourning. The producers clearly did their homework.

*Shooting into water to kill underwater targets doesn't work in this film. Good. It generally doesn't work in real life either.

The Bad

*For an action film, it's fairly slow-moving much of the time. That's one of the single biggest flaws in the picture. There's a ritual scene where the three demigods do martial arts for an extended period and it seriously slows the movie down. There are some other dull spots too, but that one takes the cake.

*It's not clear what Gracie's actual job is. Is she a crusading attorney? Some kind of social activist? Her initial purpose seems to be preventing a Chinese immigrant from being kidnapped into prostitution by a gang, she's clearly familiar with the residents of Chinatown (to the point she can call Burton an outsider and none of the Chinese point out she's just as white as he is), and she knows one of the gangs will kill her on sight. There's some potentially interesting backstory there.

(The TVTropes page for the film actually suggests that many of the film's characters could be protagonists of interesting stories in their own right.)

*The Chinese gang kidnapping someone at the airport in front of dozens of people? They must be the Z-team of human traffickers. Think the crew from Taken who openly, flagrantly kidnap an American tourist in Paris rather than the safer route of tricking or outright kidnapping Romanians or other impoverished Eastern Europeans. It would have been more plausible if they'd staged an ambush away from the crowds or even kidnapped her in Chinatown itself. Given how Wang and Egg seem friendly with one of the rival gangs, them attacking Wang's restaurant or ambushing Wang and Miao on the street is pretty sensible. Burton can get his behind handed to him there just as easily.

*Sometimes the dialogue isn't very good. Kurt Russell doesn't deliver "son of a bitch must pay" very well after the traffickers nearly run him over in a car.

*The actions and especially the facial expressions of the three demigods (who I refer to as "Lord Raiden knockoffs" in the podcast even though this movie is nearly a decade older than Mortal Kombat) who break up the gang fight were unintentionally hilarious. A couple times they come off as looking constipated.

*When Miao is kidnapped, Wang seems more concerned about himself than her, never mind that at this point they think she's going to be sold into prostitution. He tells Burton that, "My destiny is in your hands," not "Miao's safety is in your hands." Wang has known Miao since she was a child; he claims to be in love with her. Wang doesn't seem to be a self-absorbed lout generally, so I'd chalk this up to bad writing.

*Burton at one point shoots padlocks to free some girls the gang has kidnapped. That doesn't work in real life. Heck, Mythbusters used the film to introduce the segment. It would've been better if he found a jailer and made him hand over the keys at gunpoint.

*Although Wang is introduced as being this normal guy, his martial-arts skills get more and more extreme as the story progresses to the point he's able to go full-blown Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with a demigod. If they'd had some back-story where maybe he and Burton became friends taking karate as kids, that might've explained why somebody who's not initially depicted as being a Bruce Lee type by the end of the movie is busting out Bruce Lee-esque (if not better) skills.

*A character is supposed to be fleshless (except in a particular form), but he seems pretty tangible in several scenes, including touching other characters and being touched himself.

The Verdict

It deserved better than to bomb as it did, but there are still legitimate flaws. See it once, especially if you can get it for cheap off Amazon Instant Video like I did. 6.5 out of 10.

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