Widely beloved as a cult classic, John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China is entertaining on numerous levels. The film succesfully takes aspects of the action, comedy, monster, and fantasy genres and combines them together into a fun, fast-paced popcorn romp.
The story begins simply enough. Trucker Jack Burton agrees to give his friend, Wang Chi, a lift to the airport in order to pick up Wang's girlfriend, who is flying in from China. Things get rolling real fast when Wang's girl is kidnapped at the airport by Chinese gangsters, sending Jack and Wang on a quest to retrieve her that quickly leads them into a supernatural battle against cursed sorcerer David Lo Pan and his three seemingly invincible goons. Lo Pan needs to sacrifice a girl with green eyes in order to break his curse, and, as fate would have it, Wang's babe has green eyes. Jack and Wang get into one sticky situation after another, and yet the duo always manages to escape thanks to Jack's bravado and Wang's level-headed quick thinking.
Action fans will get their fill from the film's many fight sequences, which juxtapose Asian martial arts with Western style fisticuffs and gunplay. The elaborate costumes and special effects, particularly those involving Lo Pan's three supernatural henchmen (the three storms), are still quite eye-catching even in this day of CG effects and hundred-million dollar blockbusters. Even so, it's the film's comedic bent that ultimately makes it so enjoyable. When the safety on Jack's gun gets stuck, the audience watches him wrestle with it while Wang Chi is forced to take on five goons all by himself, and we laugh because Jack's machismo and ineptitude make him a likeable character despite his uncanny knack for always missing out on the big fight.
Key to the film's longevity is its dialogue, or more to the point, Jack's many quotable witticisms. In the beginning of the film, the audience is given an insight into Jack's personality when he proclaims, "Like I told my last wife, I never drive faster than I can see and besides that it's all in the reflexes." That begs many questions, not the least of which are how many wives has Jack had, and just how fast can he see?
Another exchange toward the end of the film has also weaved its way into cult lexicon. In the heat of battle, Jack says to Thunder, one of the three storms, "you know what Jack Burton says at a time like this?"
Kurt Russell delivers an inspired performance as the sidekick that thinks he's the leading man, Jack Burton, while the supporting cast, which features Kim Cattrall ("Sex and the City") and Dennis Dun (The Last Emperor), do a bang-up job of acting as the "straight men" for Russell to play off of. The film is also a who's who of Asian character actors, most notably James Hong as David Lo Pan, Victor Wong as Egg Shen, and Carter Wong, Peter Wong, and James Pax as the three storms (Thunder, Rain, and Lightning).
Colors are generally vibrant and overall picture quality is sharp. A few scenes are grainy, but that's probably due to the age of the source material and not a result of compression. The tiny, pixel-perfect LCD screen on the PSP really makes the transfer leap off the screen and into your eyeballs. Although the PSP's display is notorious for image ghosting during fast-paced action scenes, there aren't any obvious instances in this transfer. That's miraculous when you consider that the final 20 minutes of the film are loaded with acrobatic fist fights and electrifying special effects.
Purists will notice that the picture has been re-formatted to "fit" the PSP's screen. The original theatrical aspect ratio is 2.35:1. The aspect ratio for the UMD release is 1.66:1. This effectively chops off 20 percent of the original viewing area, but eliminates the need to display the film with black bars at the top and bottom.
For a film this old, that was made before digital storage techniques, it's amazing how clear the dialogue is and how distinct all of the audio effects are.
The stereo mix makes ample use of left-to-right and right-to-left sound panning to create a sound field that's surround sound-like in its richness. In many scenes, the sounds of raindrops and explosions factor heavily into the atmosphere, and you feel like you're in the middle of them because they seem to be coming from numerous distinct directions.
Beneath all of the punches, explosions, and screams, there's a catchy soundtrack that combines subtle dramatic themes with not-so-subtle 80's synthesizer riffs. Director John Carpenter actually composed much of the film's music, a fact culminated by the memorable theme songs that play at the beginning and end of the film.
Unlike so many other UMD releases, you'll actually find some extras on the Big Trouble in Little China disc. The most notable is a commentary track, which was recorded for the recent DVD release and features the film's director, John Carpenter, along with the film's leading man, Kurt Russell. They don't delve too deeply into the technical aspects of the film. Instead, the pair primarily discuss what it was like to work with the other actors on the film and frequently get stuck on tangents ranging anywhere from film-making philosophies to what their kids are up to.
Besides the commentary track, the disc also includes a brief 10-minute "making of" featurette, which was recorded in 1986, and a 4-minute music video featuring the film's theme song. The video is a real riot to watch, because John Carpenter and his band, the Coupe de Villes, are actually the ones performing the song.
The UMD also contains preview trailers for two other 20th Century Fox films, Napoleon Dynamite and Chain Reaction.
Missing from the UMD are the deleted scenes, production stills, effects interview, and promotional trailers that were included on the currently available two-disc DVD edition of the film.
All in all, the UMD release of Big Trouble in Little China delivers a quality presentation of a highly entertaining and somewhat quirky film.
Trivia: "Thunder," one of the three storms in the film, was the inspiration for the character Raiden in the Mortal Kombat video games.
11/9/2005 Frank Provo