Big fun on little DVDs

Now that affordably priced DVD movies are squeezing out prerecorded VHS tapes on store shelves, film studios have gone full-throttle to satisfy an audience eager for a constant stream of new product. For movie lovers, this means the appearance of DVD titles which go beyond new releases and must-see classics. Movies which were ignored or misunderstood during their initial theatrical release — such as Point Break and Big Trouble In Little China — are receiving a second chance to find their niche.

Now 10 and 15 years old, respectively, these box office underperformers can now be seen in the light of a culture that has finally caught up with them. Interestingly, both are being released by 20th Century Fox, a studio initially wary of DVD technology, but which now regularly produces stellar special editions, including the two-disc set of John Carpenter’s supernatural martial arts action comedy, Big Trouble In Little China.

Meanwhile, Kathryn Bigelow’s surfer heist flick, Point Break, gets a standard DVD release (sans commentary or special extras), but this wide-screen edition finally does justice to her amazing visuals.

Whether by choice, inclination or circumstance, both Bigelow and Carpenter are genre directors (in the best sense of the word), and their work has managed to be routinely dismissed or ignored at first, only to be appreciated later. Just look at their interpretations of that great horror genre, the vampire movie. Both Carpenter’s Vampires (out on DVD) and Bigelow’s Near Dark (not yet) strip away gothic romanticism and revel in raw sexuality, turning the gloomy, brooding undead into defiant outlaws living beyond the pale of conventional morality. Neither skimped on the gore or the violence, either, and as directors, they regularly challenge the conventional wisdom adopted by the makers of Hollywood’s popcorn fare.

Point Break illustrates what makes Bigelow such an intriguing action filmmaker. It’s well worth seeing for the surfing and skydiving sequences alone, which perfectly illustrate the movie’s tagline of “100 percent pure adrenaline.” (In her thrilling depictions of extreme sports, Bigelow was years ahead of her time.) The story line may seem gimmicky, with FBI Agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) infiltrating a tightly knit group of surfers. He believes they are bank robbers who dress as ex-presidents to steal dead presidents. But it’s no less outrageously improbable than most recent action flicks (see anything produced by Jerry Bruckheimer). After getting surfing lessons from the very buff Lori Petty (again, years before female athletes were considered sexy), Utah becomes the pet project of Zen surfer Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), a “modern savage” who uses thrills as a way to tap into the life force.

Reeves and Swayze are very physical actors who express themselves best through body language. While using them to forge a new kind of action hero, Bigelow also engages them in the kind of male romance Raymond Chandler epitomized in The Long Goodbye, a heterosexual dance of rivalry and bonding which becomes the primary relationship for men driven to question their core belief system.

What makes Point Break one of Kathryn Bigelow’s most fully realized films is the way every action sequence illuminates a character. It’s movie shorthand: What a character does — and how they do it — is who they are. Carpenter achieves something similar: Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) of Big Trouble In Little China is an amazingly inept action hero, yet he manages to save the day nonetheless.

Today, after the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the widespread awareness of the Hong Kong cinema that influenced it, this looks like a smart and funny parody of movies such as Chinese Ghost Story. In 1986, it left plenty of reviewers scratching their heads in disbelief. But Russell and Carpenter are obviously enjoying the last laugh. On the commentary track, they recall the innumerable ways studio executives also questioned their sanity.

Big Trouble In Little China was initially written as a western, modernized by screenwriter W.D. Richter (The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai), then tweaked by Carpenter, whose affection for supernatural kung fu movies and their loopy logic is apparent. It remains a western at heart, albeit an irreverent one: Kurt Russell’s stiff swagger and the cadence of his voice are pure John Wayne; indeed, Russell is to Carpenter what Wayne was to John “I make westerns” Ford.

After cocky trucker Jack Burton loses his rig in San Francisco’s Chinatown, he’s drawn into a bizarre netherworld ruled by an ancient sorcerer. Carpenter inverts nearly every movie convention here, even letting Russell gleefully rip the sacred cow of the hero to shreds. (It’s actually Dennis Dun, the Chinese-American sidekick, who possesses the knowledge, bravery and fighting skills.)

One of the wackiest hybrids ever made, Big Trouble In Little China isn’t merely a parody, but a distinctive film in its own right. This is absurdist humor which makes sense. Everything fits and everything clicks, from the expertly choreographed fight scenes to the fantastical costumes and ornate sets (whose design is cleverly incorporated into the DVD’s cheeky computer graphics). Yet this comedy shares a theme common to John Carpenter’s horror films: People live in a state of ignorance until they look beyond normal life and confront the hell which exists just below the surface. Like Kathryn Bigelow, he believes in going to extremes.

Serena Donadoni is a film reviewer for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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