Big Trouble In Little China - Now's the Time!

I've had Fox's 2-disc set of Big Trouble In Little China since it first came out in 2001. Anytime John Carpenter does an audio commentary, you wanna pick it up. And Big Trouble is one of my favorites of his anyway, so it was a no-brainer. But I never really felt compelled to bump up to the blu-ray when that came out. Sure, if I ever get rich, I'd like to upgrade every single DVD I own to blu-ray whenever possible. But times being what they are, I really need to be sold on a double-dip. A corrected transfer (i.e. a fullscreen movie finally released in widescreen), a cut version uncut, or all new extras. So I held off (although I borrowed a copy of the US blu just to add to our comparisons here). And I'm glad I did, because Arrow put out their own blu-ray in 2013, which did meet my upgrade terms.

Update 8/22/15 - 12/28/19: Okay, the fact that I've dipped again because they've updated just one of my stated criteria, makes me think maybe I'm not so tough on double (or triple, quadruple) dips as I thought. But hey, Scream Factory just reissued BTiLC with all new features (and, depending on the edition you copped), a whole lotta swag.  Who could resist?

Anyway, for the rest of December and beginning of January, I'm going to focus on updating a bunch of entries around these parts.  You know those posts where new, definitive (or at least highly competitive) blu-ray editions have come out since I made my posts that are now feeling out of date?  I can't promise I'll get to every single one of them; but buckle in, because DVDExotica's about to do some catchin' up!
If you've never seen it, Big Trouble is as fun as its title suggests. It's sort of an Indiana Jones-style modern adventure story, but leaning a little heavier on parody thanks to Kurt Russell playing his character as more of a posturing blowhard rather than a straightforward action hero. He winds up getting pulled into Little China's mystical underworld when his buddy and in many ways the film's real hero Dennis Dun (the guy from Prince of Darkness) sees his girlfriend get kidnapped. Following her trail, they immediately get caught in the middle of a gang war, which progresses from gun fight to a crazy kung-fu stunt show and finally into the supernatural. From then on, the movie runs breathlessly from spectacle to spectacle, with lavish sets, beautiful cinematography by Dean Cundey and dozens of great supporting characters.
Fox did a pretty great job with their DVD in 2001, which is part of the reason I was fine not upgrading. It had a great 2.33:1 transfer and some strong extras, including a bevy of deleted scenes and that commentary. Sure, there's always room to grow from SD, so I was confident any blu-ray release would be an upgrade. But when Fox released their blu in 2009, they didn't come up with any new features; and for a 2-disc set, the original release always felt pretty light (honestly, I think it all could've fit onto one disc just fine but they wanted to market a "2 Disc Special Edition"). So when Arrow came out with their version, including all new interviews to fill out the special edition, it was in my collection.  And this December, it's back again.  This time as a 2 blu-ray disc Collector's Edition from Scream Factory.
1) Fox 2002 DVD; 2) Fox 2009 BD; 3) Arrow 2013 BD; 4) SF 2019 BD.
Reading the "About the Transfer" section in their booklet, Arrow basically just says they got their HD transfer from Fox. And that's fine, because even though I never bought their blu, it's not because I ever doubted their HD presentation. It's practically identical to the US blu, and comparing those to the DVD, they're nice upgrades. In the first set of shots, there's all kinds of compression artifacts and junk around those DVD lightning bolts (and everything else), which are nicely cleaned away on the blus. The framing is better, too. Now at 2.36:1 (Fox) or 2.37 (Arrow), we get noticeably more information on both sides and an additional teensy sliver around all four sides on the Arrow.
Fox's 2002 DVD left; Fox's 2009 blu middle; Arrow's 2013 blu right.
Zooming in on James Hong in the second set of shots, we really see how much the finer details have been softened away in the DVD. Now on the blus, we're finally down to the grain and a sharper, clearer image. You can actually, albeit barely, make out the whites of his eyes in the Arrow blu. Maybe not quite on the Fox blu... it's very close to the Arrow, but a hint softer. Maybe a touch more DNR was applied to their disc. But you really need to be zooming in to screenshots to even see the difference.

And Scream's new blu?  It's obviously the same old Fox transfer... or more accurately Arrow's version of it, with the 2.37:1 framing and slight extra clarity.  Again, it's still fine.  But in 2019, with practically every other Carpenter release getting 4k restorations, why not BTiLC? Studio politics with Fox, I believe is the answer, but it's a bummer. As nice as the BD transfer is, especially for 2009 when it first came out, it would definitely benefit from a higher res scan today.  Disappointing to be sure.

Anyway, every release gives us the choice of the original stereo mix or a newer 5.1 remix (actually 4.1 on the DVD) with optional English subtitles, and they're all lossless on the blus. All three blus (but not the DVD) also include an isolated score track in DTS-HD.  Fox's releases also include additional foreign dubs and subtitle options.
I've gotta be fair to Fox, now; they did have some really good extras. The commentary by Carpenter, joined by star Kurt Russell, is a lot of fun, if a little self-indulgent (get ready to learn whose son is learning to play instruments, and whose just won a high school sports championship!). It's full of great info, as Carpenter's commentaries always are. And the deleted scenes are very thorough, including an extended ending, which I dunno... I kinda think they should've left in the picture. In fact, there's a lot of cut material, and we're sometimes even given the option to watch it from two different sources: 35mm workprint or videotape. There's also a good little interview with special effects man Richard Edlund, the original promotional featurette, and some odds and ends including trailers, TV spots, stills galleries, and Carpenter's music video for the theme song. It didn't quite feel like a "fully loaded" special edition, but all the content that was there was pretty great. And I'm talking about both their DVD and blu, which are identical in the special features department.
And I'm happy to report that Arrow ported everything over. The commentary, the vintage featurette, Richard Edlund... it's all here. They even kept both versions of the deleted scenes that came from workprint and videotape. And they've gone and added some great new interviews which really flesh this release out to a full edition. Since so much time has passed since the original Fox extras, we get a little extra perspective on things as well. For example, I'm not sure Carpenter's attitudes towards working for a major studio is exactly the same now as it was then, and we're able to refer to his later work, like Ghosts of Mars and The Ward. So, specifically what we get are brand new, on camera interviews with Carpenter, Kurt Russell (who's a pretty impressive "get" for a cult label), Dean Cundey, producer Larry Franco, and stuntman Jeff Imada. Arrow has also upgraded Fox's slim insert to an impressive booklet, which includes interviews with production designer John Lloyd and make-up effects artist Steve Johnson, and an essay by the author of The Films of John Carpenter. So it's another one of those rare cases where I actually bothered to read the book. Oh, and this release features reversible artwork, which I've used above, because I don't really get that mushroom cloud illustration they used for the other side.
I was disappointed in the lack of a new transfer on Scream's set, but I'm sure not disappointed in their special features.  One thing I was expecting when their edition was first announced is that they'd license the Fox stuff and create their own, but you'd still have to hang onto your Arrow for their exclusive extras... but, nope!  Scream has all of the legacy Fox AND Arrow stuff on here (except the booklet), plus a whole host of new goodies.  To start with, how about two more audio commentaries, one by Franco and one by Johnson?

And, hey, I don't want to put too fine a point on this, but am I the only one who noticed that the previous editions seem to interview nearly all, and exclusively, the white people from this movie?  Well, Scream has cooked up a bevy of additional extras that takes care of that little oversight with great new on-camera interviews with cast members Dennis Dun, James Hong, Donald Li, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong and Al Leong, plus martial arts choreographer James Lew.  Who else could the previous editions have overlooked?  How about writers W.D. Richter and Gary Goldman?  Or Carpenter's fellow Coupe De Villers Nick Castle (a.k.a. The Shape) and filmmaker Tommy Lee Wallace?  They even talk to the poster artist, Drew Struzan!  Still not bowled over?  Alright, how about a half hour's worth of vintage EPK interviews, a gag reel and audio interview with Carpenter?  Would two additional stills galleries tip the scales?

If not, Scream Factory is betting swag might do it.  I bought the most basic edition, which still includes a slipcover and reversible artwork.  There are actually five different sets available for just this film, which also include a steelbook edition, an 18"x24" poster, a limited edition 28.5” x 16.5" lithograph and a green 7" vinyl single of updated soundtrack songs recorded by John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies.
So if you haven't already, now is a pretty ideal time to upgrade your DVD already, especially since it doesn't seem like we'll be seeing any better, 4k upgrades anytime soon.  Scream hasn't given us a new transfer, but with their impressive special features, their's is still the new, definitive edition on the block.  Whether you go big and order Scream's fanciest package with the lithograph, record and everything, or just the most basic edition, it still completely invalidates the Arrow release.  And if you really absolutely don't care about extras at all, you can get the old Fox blu now super cheap.  You can't go wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment