Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

I’d only seen Big Trouble in Little China once before this, ages ago, and had largely forgotten about it. I’m not sure when it crossed my radar again, but it suddenly struck me that our son was certain to love it. The smooching is kept to a minimum, it’s just mayhem, magic, fight scenes and at least two characters who later got pilfered by the people who make video games. I was right; he enjoyed it very much and thought the video game comparison was apt. “Some of that,” he observed, “looked a lot like a ‘cut scene’,” as those things are called.

It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that John Carpenter’s film has inspired so many people who later worked in movies and games. I was absolutely at the right age for it when it was originally released, but I somehow missed it until it showed up on cable, and thought it was pretty good. It’s actually a little better than that. It’s a very clever and very fun film, and about the only complaint I can make is that the drum-machine music has aged really badly. Everything that Carpenter put on screen is really entertaining.

I especially like how Kurt Russell just effortlessly sells this. Jack Burton is one of the greatest action heroes from his day: resourceful, if not particularly intelligent, and loyal even when he is in way over his head and in the middle of other people’s problems. Dude just wants his truck back. I can get behind that. Support comes from the terrific James Hong as the main villain, along with Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, and Al Leong. I like how there’s a surprise around every corner, and there’s no predicting what the villains can do or what grotesque creatures are going to show up next. I also like how nobody’s cleaned up any of the cobwebs and skeletons in Lo Pan’s fortress underneath the streets of San Francisco.

So our son was incredibly pleased with darn near everything in the movie, and wowed appreciably all the way through it. I think his favorite bit might have been Dennis Dun’s character having an aerial swordfight with one of the baddies, but pretty much everything that Kurt Russell did amused him. I was surprised to learn the movie was a box office flop, only earning back about half its budget, because I’d just assumed it was a hit because everybody loves it. That’s a shame, because the late eighties and early nineties could have used another two or three Jack Burton adventures. With some different music, of course.

Legend 1.11 – Clueless in San Francisco

Well, this was very fun! In what feels like a detour into what a second season of Legend might have been like, our heroes decamp to San Francisco for an adventure with Pratt’s mother Delilah. She’s played by Janis Paige and runs a “salon” of bohemians, artists, and oddballs. No wonder Ernest turned out to be a writer. They’re helping a young woman played by Molly Hagan find her family, lost about twenty years previously. Other very familiar faces include Patty Maloney, who plays the Pratt family maid, and James Hong, who plays a man who has purchased a very familiar space…

Well, here’s one for the Wold Newton / Tommy Westphall fans out there. James Hong’s character is the current owner of Cash Conover’s Golden Gate, from Barbary Coast! I was initially amazed that the facade had remained up on its backlot for the twenty years between Coast and Legend, but the reality is that it’s only seen in a pair of establishing shots without any of this episode’s characters in it, and Legend was filmed in Arizona anyway. It’s more likely that this was just repurposed footage from episodes of Coast without Richard Kiel standing in front of the place. Coast was set in 1870-71 and Legend in 1876. Hong’s character has Ernest Pratt’s old gambling markers. I’d like to think that sometime a few years before he ended up in Sheridan, Pratt, losing his shirt at poker, got roped in to one of Cable and Cash’s byzantine plots. He probably had a last smiling freeze frame shot before the credits with his arm around whoever was playing the redhead dealer that week.

Anyway, the plot of this episode was nothing too out of the ordinary – the person who wants Molly Hagan out of town wants her out of the way of a possible inheritance, can you imagine? – but I enjoyed the setting and the characters and the cast almost as much as my silly speculation. A second year of Legend in San Francisco with all these oddballs and a great character like Delilah Pratt would certainly have been worth watching.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.24 – And Baby Makes Three

With tonight’s episode, we say farewell to a pair of the show’s recurring players. This is the last installment for both Kelly Rutherford’s character of Dixie Cousins and for James Hong’s Lee Pow. After saving the life of the future emperor of China, Dixie is invited to come visit the nation, and so she and Brisco part with a last kiss. Lee Pow had only appeared a couple of times, very briefly, and this was his biggest role in the show.

Our son really enjoyed this one, especially when the story brings us to a big, beautifully-choreographed martial arts brawl with about thirty fighters, but I think that John Pyper-Ferguson stole it. As always, Pete is dreaming big and using five dollar words, which people with fifty-cent intellects shouldn’t always do.

At one point, Pete’s been captured and is getting the old Chinese water torture, with one drop at a time landing on his forehead. We’ve seen this from time to time on television, most memorably when Tara King gets captured in the classic Avengers installment “Legacy of Death,” which reminds me of a funny story. I didn’t mention it in the blog post about “Death” because I didn’t want to derail it, but here goes.

In the late nineties, a friend of mine ran an Avengers website. He got an email once from somebody desperate to know in which episode Tara King gets tickle-tortured. He thought about it, double-checked with me, and concluded that there isn’t one. The writer had misremembered somehow, because there isn’t such a moment. However, Tara does get the Chinese water torture treatment in “Legacy of Death,” and perhaps that’s what he was thinking of.

Weeks passed, and, proving that you just can’t force people to read an email, the guy wrote back, furious, because he bought the DVD set with “Legacy of Death” on it, and Tara is not tickle-tortured in it, she is Chinese water-tortured! Time and memory may have elevated the tone and the tenor of the correspondent, but I recall him absolutely demanding that my friend stop holding out and tell him where he can see the tickling scene. I don’t remember what happened next, but I remember my friend being exasperated with this idiot’s tickling fetish, and I hope he blocked him.

It was probably a Girl From UNCLE anyway…

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.17 – Fountain of Youth

Until I realized that this was the terrific episode that climaxes with the revelation of the villain John Bly’s origins, and that it kind of demanded that I accompany this little post with this fine shot of Billy Drago being commandingly evil, the obvious image would have been one of the gunslinging gang of hilariously beefcake 1990s-haired male models running around shirtless in this story while comparing notes on fashion and admiring each other’s hats. I’m sure they’re wonderful for anybody with an eye for the fellas to admire, even with their remarkably anachronistic and consequently extra-silly haircuts, but Drago just steals the show out from under them anyway.

This episode is the penultimate chapter in the battle against John Bly, and I remember being really disappointed in 1994 at a single moment when Drago delivers one line what seemed to me to be more grandiose and over-the-top than he usually went. Looking at it again, I was mistaken. Drago was perfectly in sync with what he needed to be doing, and everything he did fit perfectly in place with all the science fiction, time travel, and de-aging formulas in this installment, even if most of the time he’s just commanding everybody’s attention quietly, with a devilish look in his eyes.

The story also brings back a character from the first episode, Lee Pow, played again by James Hong, and it gives us a surprising explanation for something we didn’t even realize needed explaining: the carved ivory handle of Brisco’s pistol. All in all, this was a very, very satisfying little hour, even if Lord Bowler, who wants all this Orb business to end so he can just be a traditional Western hero again, probably wouldn’t agree.

The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries 2.16 – Sole Survivor

There’s a pretty good chase in this story that our son really liked. Joe and guest star Jean Marie Hon are hiding from a villain in a huge storeroom full of mannequins and disembodied plastic arms. “That would be pretty creepy,” I said, in my foreshadowingly dopey Dad way. “I know,” our son replied, and then he leaned over and hissed in my ear, “Especially if they were Autons!” None of you rats told him, did you?

So the villains this evening – some East German spies operating in Hong Kong and hoping to snatch a defector, who include James Hong and a not-evil-enough Diana Muldaur – have convinced Joe that he’s been in a coma for almost a year and that Frank and their dad were killed. Joe figures out their scheme pretty quickly, and of course the dopes spoiled it all in the pre-titles clips anyway, but it’s an entertainingly complex and only-on-TV scheme, with the bad guys going to an insane amount of extra work to convince Joe that a year has passed, even faking the handwriting of his friends and family on some “letters from home.”

My favorite part of their plot: a hidden VCR that plays the spies’ news from the far-flung future of 1979. Among the current events being reported in Hong Kong that January: the collapse of the Ugandan government following the death of Idi Amin, and the surprise marriage of Prince Charles to Princess Caroline. Those East Germans were having far too much fun making this stuff up.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.1 (pilot)

I spent the 1990s in Athens GA, the best city possible to see lots and lots of live music. And I saw some great shows, but never went out as much as I should have, and very rarely on Fridays. That’s because I spent my Fridays in front of the television instead of at the 40 Watt or the Uptown Lounge. The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. was one of the programs that kept me home on Friday nights whenever there was a new episode.

Had I known in 1993 that one day you could get all 28 hours, uncut, on a format yet to be developed, and take up just slightly more shelf space than one VHS tape, then I’d have recorded them on a timer on 6-hour speed to watch once and collect later on down the road, and go out to see Hillbilly Frankenstein or the Labrea Stompers like I should have been doing. But no, I sat in front of the TV, taping and live-editing out the commercials while watching Brisco County and The X Files and, the next season, Homicide: Life on the Street. Did I see Elf Power’s first dozen or so shows? Not a one of them. But I wouldn’t have missed Brisco County for the world.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. was created by Jeffrey Boam and Carlton Cuse. It’s a western, mostly, but its tongue is in its cheek. There are science fiction elements, and it’s very, very funny. In the Maverick tradition, this is a show that where the situations are often “hopeless, but never serious.” It starred Bruce Campbell as our hero, with regular support from Julius Carry as the bounty hunter Lord Bowler and Christian Clemenson as the representative of the wealthy robber barons who are paying them to clean up a criminal gang. In recurring roles, there are Billy Drago and John Pyper-Ferguson as two of the villains – more about them another time – and John Astin and Kelly Rutherford as occasional allies.

Aggravatingly, one character who didn’t return when Fox agreed to buy this as a regular series was Amanda, the daughter of Astin’s mad scientist character, played by Anne Tremko. It might have been fun to have a naughty vs. nice love triangle with her, Brisco, and Kelly Rutherford’s sexy showgirl, Dixie Cousins. James Hong also has a one-off role in the two-hour pilot as an old friend of Brisco’s father. Hong probably couldn’t have returned even if they wanted him, because he had about fifty-two other commitments that year. Busy man.

Our son has been very skeptical about this show, since he didn’t enjoy Barbary Coast very much and that has soured him on westerns. But Brisco won him over exactly as it did me that Friday night in 1993. The first scene introduces the science fiction element of the show in the form of a mysterious, otherworldly Unearthed Foreign Object called The Orb, and the second scene builds to a train derailment using a variation on all those fake tunnels that Wile E. Coyote used to paint on rocks. Seven minutes into this and we hadn’t met the hero yet but I wasn’t going to miss an episode no matter who was playing at the Rockfish Palace that week.

And our kid indeed watched with eyes about as wide as mine must have been. Add in John Pyper-Ferguson’s hyperactive never-shuts-up gunslinger Pete, and Brisco’s horse Comet, who does not understand that he is a horse and needs to do horse things, and he was sold. He really liked Brisco racing to save the day riding a railroad rocket, although sadly he didn’t recognize the rocket’s inventor. He and I rewatched the Eerie, Indiana episode “The Hole in the Head Gang” this morning about an hour before we sat down to this and he still couldn’t identify John Astin!

MacGyver 2.4 – The Wish Child

I picked tonight’s episode of MacGyver because George Takei is in it, but it turned out to be among the better episodes that we’ve seen. “The Wish Child,” written by Stephen Kandel and Bill Froelich, is about a scam that a Chinatown con artist is playing on a very wealthy sucker, played by the prolific James Hong, who has indeed been in just about everything. IMDB lists him with an amazing 424 credits, and even though most of his most recent work has been voiceovers, you’ve seen or heard him in a thing or twelve. Tia Carrere also appears in a small part, topping and tailing the episode as another very good friend of MacGyver’s that we never hear about before or after this story.

Our son was most taken with the bit that I also enjoyed the most. In order to get on board Hong’s character’s freighter, MacGyver coats himself with dirt, grease, and oil, and stomps past the guards carrying a random assortment of machine parts. His voiceover explains this as an old Minnesota trick: he’s filthy enough to register as untouchable. Nobody wants to touch the untouchable!

Takei’s character meets his end in a remarkably silly scene. It turns out the wealthy sucker may be gullible enough to fall for a scam about the reincarnation of a legendary “wish child,” but he’s also a ruthless criminal himself who intends to enslave the boy and kill any witnesses. So Takei takes a bullet to the chest while he’s talking to MacGyver, and the assassin just leaves… but MacGyver’s heard the whole story and is now a witness to both the scam and the new murder. Talk about a loose end! I bet that assassin doesn’t mention this when he gets a job interview with some other ruthless criminal.