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.

Stargate (1994)

We’re going to begin watching Stargate SG-1 here at the blog fairly soon. I’ll talk about it in more detail later, but I think it’s a program that starts out godawful, turns into a mostly good show, and eventually becomes tremendously entertaining. It’s based on a 1994 MGM film directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich. A lot of Emmerich’s hallmarks are on display here. He’s kind of made an art of spending an insane amount of money and resources on movies that would be every bit as stupid with a tenth of the budget.

Stargate isn’t a movie that I’d ever really watched before; it’s a movie that’s been on while I’ve been in the room. And I can now say that it is every bit as lazy and stupid as I feared. Nothing surprising happens in this film; it’s an action movie by the numbers. About the only thing in the story that I really liked was a gruesome bit where the hero’s about to get the drop on the villain, and the bad guy is instantly surrounded by more than a dozen human shields; little children bred to die for their boss.

As for the actors, I liked Richard Kind’s petulant performance as a translator on the Stargate project whose work gets bulldozed immediately as soon as the new whizkid on the team, Dr. Daniel Jackson, shows up. Jackson is played by James Spader and Col. O’Neill by Kurt Russell, and it’s a testament to how little they brought to the movie that I spent the full 130 minutes saying to myself that Michael Shanks and Richard Dean Anderson are both so, so much better than these actors in the same roles.

If you’ve never seen the film, it’s an incredibly long setup to get to a faster-than-light wormhole to another galaxy. There, a small colony of humans whose ancestors were abducted from Egypt 10,000 years ago live as slaves to an alien who calls himself Ra. The Great White Saviors show up and save the day, showing the locals that their “gods” are mortal, and blowing up Ra and his pyramid ship with a failsafe nuke.

There’s a bit where Ra’s jackal-helmeted warriors sneak around and make mincemeat out of the redshirts left behind to guard the way home. Our son thought this scene was very frightening. He otherwise enjoyed the fighting and the shootouts. This is a very simple film without nuance or surprises, so it’s natural that kids would enjoy it. Everything here was done better once Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner got involved a couple of years later and made it into a TV show.

Not a lot better, mind you. It takes a long time to find its feet. More on that soon.