*. On the DVD commentary track for Big Trouble in Little China director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell (who are obviously having a lot of fun reminiscing about the good ol’ days) mention how the movie had great test screenings but tanked at the box office, in large part (they felt) because of a poor effort at advertising and then having to go head-to-head with Aliens. It took later audiences to discover Big Trouble on glorious VHS, which (I think) is where I first saw it.
*. But VHS felt and still feels right for it. It’s a movie packed with ’80s cheesiness that belongs on a cassette, like some old albums need to play on vinyl. VHS even fits perfectly with its Hollywood version of Chinatown, which is all studio sets dressed up like a strip-mall Chinese restaurant. It’s hard to think the fate of the world is at stake when your climax takes place in the Temple of the Neon Skull, which you get to by going down a corridor lined with fat Buddha statues.
*. Russell’s Jack Burton definitely belongs in the ’80s. He has hockey hair to go with his fetching ensemble: a wifebeater with some cheap print on it, faded jeans, and knee-high moccasins. And then as a kicker you get an actual theme song, “Big Trouble in Little China” by The Coupe De Villes (John Carpenter singing back-up), played over the closing credits. Whatever happened to theme songs?
*. I wouldn’t argue that this is a great movie, but it is a great little movie with buckets of charm and no interest in taking itself seriously. Russell is perfect as the tough-talking but sadly underperforming leading man. Or leading man who is really a sidekick, as the joke is that Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi is the more conventional hero. Jack Burton gets all the usual action-hero tag-lines, but he’s all talk. Except he does come through in a pinch and he is a hit with Kim Cattrall, who looks sensational here and plays very bright and funny coming off Porky’s and Police Academy. In contrast, Wang Chi’s love interest Miao Yin doesn’t even have any lines, at least that I can recall.
*. Throw in James Hong and Victor Wong as dueling good and evil sorcerers and you’ve got a great cast that knew just how to play this material. Carpenter keeps things moving — literally, he loves to have his characters run from scene to scene — and as an added bonus the fact that this is an ’80s flick means you get some fun practical effects instead of a lot of crappy CGI. Of course the Wild-Man orangutan looks ridiculous, but I’d still take him ahead of a digital demon any day.
*. So this is one of those movies where everything came together. Even the lipstick that Gracie smears all over Jack’s mouth was a happy accident that came up during filming. Sometimes things just work out, and aside from the box office that’s what happened here.
*. But of course, box office is what matters. Over the years there’s been a lot of talk about a remake or sequel, but so far fans have had to make do with a series of comics. And maybe that’s for the best. \what happened in the ’80s should stay in the ’80s. It’s better that way.