Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

The best action-comedy-fantasy-martial arts film ever made. It’s all in the reflexes.

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Plot: Truck driver Jack Burton makes a stop off in San Francisco’s Chinatown only to be caught up in tale of magic and adventure when the green-eyed fiancée of his buddy Wang is kidnapped by Rain, Thunder and Lightning, the Three Storms and protectors of Lo Pan, an ancient sorcerer who is cursed to live life as a ghost unless he can marry a woman with green eyes….only Wang, warrior Egg Shen, plucky lawyer Gracie Law and (I almost forgot) Jack can save the day…

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Of all the films John Carpenter made in his heyday, Big Trouble in Little China is definitely the most FUN. Apparently it was a great laugh to make, and that enthusiasm definitely transfers to the movie itself. A delightful combination of supernatural martial arts adventure and comedy, the film has virtually no plot but more than gets by thanks to the spirited performances, tongue-in-cheek script, great action and wild imagination. What lifts it considerably from most escapist entertainment from the time is the treatment of Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton. Oh, of course he’s posing on the poster with his gun and the damsel in distress draped around him, but in truth this ‘hero’ is borderline hopeless.

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The real hero in the more conventional sense is really the character of Wang (Dennis Dun), who pulls off all the killer moves, gets the girl, understands what’s going on, has the genuine, serious motive to succeed and so on. Jack on the other hand, just wants his truck back to begin with, and he only tags along for journey for the sheer hell of it. Well, there is the matter of the lovely Gracie (Kim Cattrall), who also gets kidnapped and who also has green eyes and who he clearly has a thing for, but the film totally goes against the typical happy-ever-after coupling by having him turn her down in the penultimate scene. I used to really get frustrated at this ending – not in a ‘how dare the filmmakers betray my expectations, I want formula!’ kind of way, but in an ‘I can’t believe Jack did that! That’s Kim Cattrall! The Mannequin herself!’ I guess I was in love with her myself and was pissed-off that Kurt walked away. Still, it made for a stronger ending, less easy, less predictable. It makes sense for Jack not to get the girl, given how much the action hero archetype has been played around with up until now.

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What’s great is that Carpenter and Russell don’t go overboard with this ‘incidental hero’ conceit – true, there are pratfalls he succumbs to, but they don’t milk it. Saying that, they do have a lot of fun undermining his machismo, say in the bit where Jack still has bright red lipstick smeared on his mouth after kissing Gracie and then has it stay there throughout his entire confrontation with the chief villain. Or when he’s wearing that silky blue kimono after the first big action sequence. Or when he and Wang are held prisoner – Jack is receiving invisible punches from Rain, and Jack says ‘why don’t you come over here and fight like a MAN?’ to which Rain produces a red ball from out of nowhere and sends it hurtling right into Jack’s gut.

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Some of Jack’s incompetence borders on slapstick, but it always get a laugh, never a groan, and in a way, he represents us, the viewer. Jack’s the only one who double-takes at all the madness occurring around him, the only one who, as he puts it himself, is unsure about being expected to ‘buy all this shit’. Yet this isn’t a mockery of other cultures or anything like that – you can tell Carpenter bloody loves all this fantastical stuff and all the mythology, and that Jack’s John Wayne bravado counts for very little. Yet he also loves Jack too much to make him a simple figure of fun. He loves him, Kurt Russell clearly adores him and I rate him as one of the all-time offbeat action leads. After all, what’s better than the moment where the film counter-acts Jack’s biggest blunder in the whole movie by having him pull off probably the coolest, swiftest comeback in bad guy takedown in cinema history. Like he says, it’s all in the reflexes. You can accept Jack as a hero, it’s just that he’s not the same kind of hero that he himself thinks he is.

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The acting is very enjoyable – there’s little else for me to add about Russell’s performance, except that along with Escape from New York it may be his definitive turn. Dun makes for an engaging sidekick/unofficial lead action hero, a little wooden at times admittedly, but full of energy nonetheless. Cattrall is quite delightful, approaching the role with an almost screwball-comedy turn. Then there are the bad guys – the Three Storms with their huge straw hats and spectacular powers, admittedly, Lightning doesn’t have much to do except produce – you guessed it – lightning, but Rain gets to have a spectacular aerial swordfight with Wang at the end, and as for Thunder? Well, he has the most fun – looking snappy in civilian attire and introducing his services in the most suspicious way possible. I mean, who actually laughs before insisting – ‘I can help you!’ like he does at one point? Someone who wants to cause pain, that’s who. Yet the good guys fall for it, so what do I know? He also gets to endure one of the all-time most insane death sequences in cinema history, when he becomes so frustrated at the death of his master that he actually inflates himself beyond bursting point, exploding and leaving behind what looks like a lot of rotten cabbage. The two shots where we see him fit to burst are utterly bonkers, unforgettable and quite hilarious. James Hong is terrific as Lo Pan – totally convincing (great make-up job) as a decrepit old man and as a mighty sorcerer, he nails great comedy and boo-hiss pantomime villainy down to a tee.

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The dialogue is infinitely quotable – be it Jack’s swagger banter, Lo Pan’s excessive threats or the good guys’ straight-faced references to the ‘black blood of the earth’ and the ‘hell of the upside down sinners’, and all of that is made extra fantastic by the chemistry between all of the stars. Great dialogue is one thing, but there’s something about the way it’s delivered and shared is what gives this film that magic. Just like the underrated Ghostbusters II, this is a film where the actors look like they’re having a fantastic time just riffing off each other and loving the script they’ve been handed. Even the minor characters get to have fun. A good example of the good-time mood comes around near the end – just check out that bit in the lift after everybody’s had a glug of Egg Shen’s magic potion. I don’t know why, but this scene cracks me up!

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The special effects are great. I mean that in the way that they’re seamless and they stick in the mind – was it just me, or did those shots of Lo Pan with the light coming out of his eyes and mouth look fantastic? They always put that shot of the first time he pulls that off in the adverts when I was younger. That’s not all – what about that floating head with eyes peeking out of every orifice? That shit’s crazy. By the way, the floating head acts as a kind of surveillance camera for Lo Pan – he sees what it sees. I don’t think he feels what it feels though, otherwise Lo Pan would have had a stinking head – Jack shoots the head in the cheek and Wang sticks a sword right between its eyes. Ouch. As much as I do want to make light of abuse to disembodied heads, the goofy noise it makes when it gets stabbed is quite hilarious. As for the make-up, well they really make Hong look as though he’s about two-hundred years old in the scenes where he’s just plain old David Lo Pan. That’s another thing, giving a two thousand plus year old ghost the prefix of ‘David’ always made me chuckle.

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The action is terrific – proper smackdowns with the occasional touch of craziness. This all reaches a splendid apex with the showdown between heroic Egg Shen (Victor Wong, who is always worth watching) and Lo Pan, each of producing magic light that in itself produces a swordfight between two giant imaginary samurais. It’s utterly wild, and look at the way Lo Pan frenetically taps his fingers, it’s like he’s tapping the buttons of a control pad during a wired gaming session of Olympic Gold for the Sega Mega Drive.

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Then there’s the music – Carpenter’s music is always worth anyone’s time, and this is another diamond score to add to the list. Then there’s the matter of the theme song. Let’s get one thing cleared up – this is one of the best things ever. I mean, it’s a ridiculously catchy song, especially when it gets going during that ‘we better run’ bridge, and it’s a work of personal genius, given that the lead singer is none other than John Carpenter himself, backed by Last Starfighter/The Boy Who Could Fly director/Michael Myers himself Nick Castle and Halloween III/It director Tommy Lee Wallace. What other films boast a theme song sung by its own director? In a band with his director mates? None! Saying that, the promo video for this is probably the most wonderfully embarrassing thing you’ll ever see. Find it, watch it, now.

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Sadly, Big Trouble was a box office flop, despite excellent preview screenings – 20th Century Fox apparently didn’t know how to market it, as well as the fact that it come out in the middle of the commercial whirlwind generated by James Cameron’s Aliens. Harsh, but if you’re going to be destroyed at the box office by another film, it may as well be the Greatest Action Film/Blockbuster Ever Made. Also, there was another Chinese/Hollywood/Mystical adventure out that same year, which made much more money. However, for all its modest amusements, The Golden Child is but a miniscule fraction of the gem that Big Trouble in Little China is. Funnily enough, both films have a confrontation at an airport. Both star Victor Wong. That’s where the similarities end.

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Despite featuring a relatively (for a Hollywood blockbuster) bittersweet ending, on the John Carpenter grim-o-meter scale, Big Trouble in Little China is easily the most joyous and grin-inducing film he has ever made. Seriously, Carpenter films, for all their cult brilliance, re-watch factor and guaranteed entertainment, are also quite dark, angry, sad and usually likely to end on a down note. Amongst this company, Big Trouble is a sugar rush of spectacle, hilarity and imagination. It really is one of the most fun films ever.

PS: I was quite surprised when I scanned the titles of my local video shop as a child and realised that Big Trouble in Little China was a ‘15’ rated film. I mean, this was a real early evening ITV mainstay, one that seemed so perfect for 10-14 year olds, and all of a sudden I wasn’t legally allowed to watch the bloody thing! In hindsight, I realise the film was probably snipped for those early screenings, but aside from a few bone breaks and that knife in the head shot (oh and of course the one use of ‘fuck’, seemingly obligatory in a 1980’s PG-13 film, to be used once and once only), this is most adventure-loving children’s idea of a perfect film. The BBFC seemed to concur with this, releasing the film with a ‘PG’ when it was at the cinemas, with only cut for the f-word. Weirdly, when the film was released on video as a ‘15’, the ‘fuck’ was put back in, but some of the violence in the Chinese standoff sequence was removed, despite it being seemingly appropriate for a PG on the big screen.

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Darker, nastier, meaner….but not better. Still good, though!

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Obviously, the warning signs weren’t good – Matthew Vaughn not directing and Jane Goldman not writing, negative press and the knowledge that its comic book counterpart barely succeeded in balancing its humour with an even uglier violent streak that bordered on gratuitously unpleasant. Well, first things first – Kick-Ass 2 is not as good as the original. It lacks the freshness of its predecessor (then again, how many sequels can pull that off? By their very nature there will most likely be a sense of déjà vu), it’s not as funny, it’s not as well directed and the script isn’t as thrilling. Still, the main problems with this film boil down to what’s not here.

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What is here is a hugely enjoyable chunk of ultraviolent, bad-taste entertainment that gets by on pure volume and oomph. Admittedly, the film’s big shocks weren’t shocking to me because I’d read both its source material and the excellent Hit Girl Prelude, and as such I was geared for them. In the book the more extreme moments really did throw me, not just because they were unexpected but also because they were so damn horrible. The film doesn’t hold back either, though it’s not as extreme. I don’t want to give anything away, but the film does refrain from depicting (or even referencing) some of the book’s more grotesque moments. In fact, one notoriously unpleasant moment from the book is completely turned around here, with unexpectedly funny results.

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Okay, no more coy references to stuff I don’t want to spoil. Let’s talk about the film. Everyday teenage superhero Kick-Ass/Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) barely survived the explosive conclusion of the first film, and has begun combat survival training from Hit-Girl/Mindy McCready (Chloe Grace Moretz), who, lest we forget, is only fifteen and has already killed dozens upon dozens of criminals in the name of justice, thanks to her, shall we say, unconventional upbringing from psychotic father Big Daddy, who didn’t make it to the end of the last film. Problem is, Hit-Girl is now living with her dad’s old buddy (Morris Chestnut, you know, Ricky from Boyz N The Hood!) who knows her secret and doesn’t want her to go around slicing up criminal scum. He just wants her to go to high school and be a normal girl. Once she makes a solemn promise to stay away from crime and Kick-Ass, our hero turns to the new wave of amateur superheroes who are vowing to protect the city. These include Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison from Scrubs), whose anti-gravity baton is just a baton, and Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), an ex-mob enforcer turned born again Christian crime-fighter, who has a dog he likes to sic bad guys with. However, there’s also the matter of Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the son of the chief villain from the original, who has gone completely bat-shit in the meantime and intends on avenging his father’s death by re-christening himself The Motherfucker and putting together a team of supervillains.

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This is a busy film, with a lot of plot to cram in its running time – it can all seem a bit cluttered and rushed at times, but the film doesn’t overstay its welcome, which isn’t something you can say about most superhero films with their two-and-a-half-hour + running times. In addition to the above plot points, we also experience Mindy’s school days, which turn out to be more brutal than her days decapitating gangsters. Oh, and there’s Kick-Ass’s romantic (well, sexual) relationship with a fellow superhero named Night Bitch, the Motherfucker’s rivalry with his prison-bound uncle (Iain Glen, only present for one scene but making plenty of impact in the process), Kick-Ass’s father, his school friends….there’s a lot going on, but for the most part everything’s kept in check. Taylor-Johnson is perfectly amiable and engaging as Dave/Kick-Ass, but the real star is Moretz, whose Hit Girl is still unforgettably, staggeringly vicious and who as Mindy gets a lot more to do in this sequel. In fact, Mindy is the beating heart of this film, the much-needed sweetness amongst all of this carnage. Oh yeah, Mindy’s still a bad-ass, but it’s hard not to feel utter sympathy for her as she tries out for the school dance class or goes out on her first date – for her, this is all new, and Moretz is wonderful during these moments. I guess the film short-changes her when it comes to giving her a killer catchphrase – ‘game on, cocksuckers’ was never going to match ‘Okay you cunts, let’s see what you can do’ for sheer jaw-dropping shock, but she elevates this film substantially. What with Let Me In and Hugo (and obviously the first Kick-Ass film) to boast on her CV, she really is one of the best things in the movies at the moment. As for Jim Carrey, he’s great. It’s easy to forget he’s Jim Carrey in this – no face-pulling, no mugging, just a vivid, comic-book performance with bad teeth and a great, deep voice. Mintz-Plasse has one of the trickier characters to work with – a sadistic, evil, mad bastard who’s also pathetically weak and hopelessly whining. In the book he’s responsible for the more disturbing acts of cruelty – his sadism is toned down a bit here, which works given the film’s overall tone, any more nastiness would have pushed the film over the edge. Saying that, he’s not as terrifying here as he is in the book, where you felt he was capable of anything. Mintz-Plasse is riotously entertaining regardless, and there’s fine support from John Leguizamo as the Alfred to the Motherfucker’s Batman (their words, not mine), Faison as the wildly enthusiastic Dr. Gravity and Clark Duke as Dave’s school buddy who feels the need to rip-off an origin story for his superhero alter-ego because nothing’s interesting’s ever happened to him.

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The 15 certificate isn’t that surprising given that the original got one too– this is a very, very violent film but not too shocking given what we’re used to. Again, the most wince-inducing moments involve Hit-Girl getting pummelled – I suppose it’s a good thing that I’m not desensitised to the sight of a teenage girl getting the crap beaten out of her, even if she gives more than she takes. There’s a cracking set-piece on top of a moving van, and the visuals are bright, snappy and appropriately vivid given the source medium, and even though the film feels mostly like a lesser version of the original, it has enough that’s new (the Mindy subplot) that helps it stand apart from its predecessor. I was gearing myself for a disappointing experience, but Kick-Ass 2 still kicks arse.

Only God Forgives (2013)

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Sometimes you go to the cinema and the film is so loud and busy that you won’t notice people walking into the screening late, or the munching of food, or the mumbling of others. Not me personally, I seem to have heightened sensory awareness when watching a film and any distraction sets my teeth on edge. Still, I doubt even God would have forgave the amount of noise evident in last night’s cinema showing of Only God Forgives, the new film from Pusher/Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. Above all else, this film is about MOOD. It’s sometimes very loud, but only when it wants to be. There is a lot of space and a lot of silence. This is a film that when it began, I wanted to lose myself in it. I wanted to be part of the film. The film’s doing its part, being shown on a huge screen. The cinema screening room’s also playing its role, shrouded in darkness and delivering big fat stereo sound. I’m playing my part, being quiet and eyes on the screen. So what about the frankly piss-taking amount of people who arrived up to ten/fifteen minutes late, wandering around like zombies, albeit zombies with, I tell no lie, torches to guide their way to an available seat. Seriously, FUCK OFF! I’d be mortified if I walked into a screening late and would do my best to shuffle quietly to the nearest available seat so as to not to distract anyone else. But no, these muppets felt the need to wave their torches around and blind me and my fellow attendee. They also walked directly in front of the screen. Sorry mate, I paid to see Ryan Gosling, not your silhouette. This torch thing must be a new craze in timekeeping-challenged people, as more than one group of people had the bloody things. I thought it might have been the usher (oh, how quaint that term seems in this day and age) guiding them to their seats, but no, it was people who seemed to have brought their own torches. Not even mobile phones with the display light on. Actual bloody torches. Okay, I might have been mistaken. I was trying to concentrate on the film and I wanted to look at these latecomers as little as possible, so maybe they weren’t torches.

Now I know that most blockbuster-chain cinemas these days don’t seem to have actual ticket desks anymore, and by that I mean ticket desks that exclusively sell tickets. No, these days you have to join the queue for the food counter, so that you can ‘conveniently’ get your film ticket and your overpriced cauldrons of popcorn/vats of soft drink all at once. Except I don’t want to buy food, I just want to pay to see the film, and since your self-service machine never seems to like my unlimited card (a subscription that allows you to see as many films as you want for a monthly fee), I have to join the queue. Where was I? Oh yes, that might be the reason for arriving in the screen late, as sometimes the queues can delay you. But for those who turned up around fifteen minutes late? Well, sorry but the queues aren’t THAT bad. These people are just being slack. And I’m starting to think that Hitchcock’s demand that ‘no one will be admitted into the theatre’ after the start of each screening of Psycho had started was a bloody good idea.

There was also the bloke loudly rummaging around his popcorn early on. Still, there’s not many easy ways of negotiating your way through popcorn and being silent at the same time, and the cinemas are selling this stuff, so I guess it’s all legitimate behaviour. Very annoying though, given the mood of the film. If it was during something like the new Michael Bay movie, I wouldn’t have noticed. Saying that, I wouldn’t be watching the new Michael Bay movie, so he can eat smelly crunchy nachos for all I care. During a film like Only God Forgives, I think food should be banned. I guess this kind of thinking is the reason I’m not the manager of a cinema chain.

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So what about the film? First of all, thank you for reading this far. Secondly, this is not the kind of film I will only watch once. I honestly didn’t know what to make of it. I did think it was strong cinema, the kind that just grabbed me with its visceral punch. It’s what I expected from the director of Drive but closer to what I expected from the director of Valhalla Rising, which is the weird, vague and striking historical oddity from a couple of years back. For those who have only seen Drive and want more of the same, they could be disappointed. Drive, for all its style and emphasis on mood, was also a pretty accessible and straightforward film that blended the artistic and the commercial very nicely. Only God Forgives is also rather straightforward in terms of plot, but way out there in terms of execution. Its opening credits are in Thai for god’s sake. That might have set alarm bells ringing for those whose only knowledge of the film came from its trailers, which promised a balls-out, tough as nails thriller. Then we get mood. A lot of it. Static shots. Actors acting like they’re on stage. It seems very mannered. Posed. The soundtrack is alien, strange, heavy on atmosphere. The lighting throughout is extremely dark, filtered in deep, queasy reds and ambers.

Forget Ryan Gosling’s Julian, the first character we really follow is his brother, a sick bastard who goes to a brothel to request some time with a fourteen year old girl. Rebuffed by the pimp, he then he goes somewhere else and does something unspeakable. What follows could be a revenge thriller, albeit one where the avenged is a scumbag and the so-called avenger doesn’t seem to have really liked or cared about his brother. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. Gosling’s performance here is interesting to say the least. Clearly riffing off of the cool, calm, quiet enigma he nailed in Drive, here he’s initially passive to the point of comatose. It’s a performance that has been criticised, to the point where it’s been dismissed as a ‘non-performance’. I’m erring closer to the belief that it is a very good performance, one where less is definitely more. His delivery totally suits the film, which is all visual. All action. Even if the action is reduced to a look or a glance for most of the time. You know in Drive when Gosling’s Driver does one thing, then does that, and you can feel his motivation and, yes, drive, for doing so? Well, we don’t really get that here. We don’t really get under Julian’s skin. But you know what? Given the whole feel of the film, which is very sparse and wide open for interpretation, I didn’t really have a problem. His character is almost a blank, but it’s a blank canvas, and you can add what you want to it. If you want. We don’t really get to work out the inner mechanics of many of these characters, with the possible exception of Kristin Scott Thomas as Julian’s mother, who essentially runs the show – her sons run the martial arts venue and deal drugs on the side (actually it’s closer to the reverse of that), but it’s Mama’s operation, and she clearly wants revenge. We’re not really sure what Julian wants. Her character is pretty repulsive. One scene involving her meeting Julian’s ‘girlfriend’ (a beautifully sensual turn from Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) for the first time is a textbook example of how not to greet a prospective daughter-in-law. We do get under her skin though, even if it’s not a pleasant place. The one main figure of justice is pretty psychotic, brandishing a sword at every possible moment. In this film, bad guys do good things. Good guys do bad things. In fact, mentioning good guys and bad guys seems ultimately pointless in a review for a film like this. Character wise, there’s difficulty latching on to something reliable.

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I’m not going to go into specifics about the plot, because frankly a straight relaying would make the film sound more prosaic than it actually is, and also because the wild detours into what could be flights of character’s imagination may mean something, it may not. It might just look great. It might just mean a visual punch. I think some people are going to hate this film. Some are going to love it. I was very curious as to what the other people in the screening I attended thought of it. One thing’s for certain – the trailer is misleading. Anyone wanting the ultimate smackdown are going to be annoyed. Anyone wanting Drive 2 will be let down. The violence in Drive was shocking, but it had a charge to it – sometimes perversely thrilling, sometimes horrific and upsetting. The violence here is very brutal but strangely remote. One character has unspeakable things done to him with a bunch of hairpins but although it’s obviously grotesque, it’s strangely impersonal. The film burns with an undercurrent of impending violence but the releases, when they happen, are not on the same lines of other ultraviolent films. For all the talk of this being boundary-pushing in regards to screen nastiness, this is not unwatchable or disgustingly gratuitous. Oh yes, it’s not pleasant, far from it, and there are a couple of very gruesome shots, but overall, this delivers more on impact and sounds and mid-shots rather than anything unrelentingly disgusting. Apart from those couple of gruesome shots. They ARE nasty.

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I did like this film though. It will bore some people. It’s so serenely paced, and even the relatively high-voltage moments of violence are delivered without the expected charge. There are probably more karaoke scenes in a ninety-minute film than most people will tolerate. The ending is expectedly vague. The film is debted to Alejandro Jodorowsky, who directed among other films, The Holy Mountain, which may be the most insane film ever made. One thing that cannot be denied is that this film is a fantastic wash of technical excellence. The lighting drags you deep, deep down into this underworld. The versatile soundtrack by Cliff Martinez is stunning, ranging from intense attacks of percussion to quite beautiful synth-textures. The film gripped me even though it is not, in any conventional sense, gripping. It is exceptionally cinematic.

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PS: Whilst writing this review, an advert on the telly promoted Sun +, an online app that lets you catch up on all the footy goals and highlights wherever you are. The ad proceeded to show a variety of locations where you might want to do this. One of the potential spots was a in a darkened cinema. That’s right, this paper was suggesting you catch up on the footy during a film. Well done, The Sun, you are even more shitty now than you were before I started writing this review.

They Live (1988)

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Listen you mother, you’ve got to understand that John Carpenter was to the late seventies and eighties what David Bowie was to the seventies and early eighties. Both enjoyed a streak so hot that their eventual downslide was all the more depressing given how initially invincible they appeared to be. Carpenter kicked off his feature-length journey with 1974’s Dark Star, which I still haven’t seen and really should, so I’ll skip to the lethal siege thriller Assault on Precinct 13, which boasted masterly genre direction on a low-budget. Plus it had the nerve to kill a sweet child whose only crime was to complain about her flavour of ice cream. Once that happened, all bets were off. Precinct 13 was great, but Halloween (1978) was a total masterpiece and more or less the final word in slasher cinema. Is there a better slasher film? Okay, the bit where one of them gets killed in a car and she does the funniest death-face in cinema isn’t great, but the rest is. There are plenty of rivals, contenders and all that, but none match the horrific purity of Carpenter’s film. Then we got a spree of gems, ranging from middle-weight but still well worth any horror genre-fan’s time such as The Fog (one of the ultimate jump-movies) and Christine (the best evil car film ever), a great sci-fi ride in Escape from New York (which I do think is slightly overpraised but is still a peach) and one of the finest remakes ever in The Thing, which boasts probably the most imaginative special effects ever created. You also got the genuinely sweet and moving Starman (a hot contender for most overlooked Carpenter film, and definitely the saddest) plus the hugely enjoyable Big Trouble in Little China, which may have the worst theme song ever but does have Kim Cattrall in a geisha-outfit and the most hilariously ineffective lead hero since Indiana Jones. However, some unhappy experiences working with big studios led to Carpenter retreating back to indie filmmaking for the last two films of his golden era – true, Prince of Darkness and They Live were distributed by major studios but in essence they were made by Carpenter’s own Alive Films company. Prince of Darkness was a flawed but still effective apocalyptic horror, but They Live is nigh on perfect, a true cult film, a clever, dumb, angry, exciting, hilarious and striking slice of paranoid SF that died a death at the box office and yet grew to become another much-loved Carpenter peach. It was also the last truly excellent film this director ever made – good stuff would follow, but They Live is definitely the last of the golden era.

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I must say that ace film critic Vern (author of the genuinely amazing Steven Seagal film guide Seagalogy)’s take on They Live could be the final word on the matter, and anything I say won’t be able to elaborate much further than this man’s infectious enthusiasm for the film –  http://www.outlawvern.com/2006/08/23/they-live/- but I’ll throw in my two cents. They Live is essentially a tale of Us against Them, partly a class war, but the rich turn out to be more than just well off, they’re literally from another planet. Turns out grotesquely ugly aliens are living amongst us, and they’re the ones with the fancy gold watches, the housemaids, the much-coveted promotions, basically the ones who aren’t poor, underclass or from an ethnic minority. They look like us, but that’s only because they’ve installed a huge aerial that transmits a brainwashing signal that makes us see otherwise. There’s also subliminal messages hidden or virtually every shop sign, billboard, magazine, newspaper, stuff like ‘Obey’, ‘Consume’, ‘Marry and Reproduce’, ‘No Independent Thought’ and so on, stuff that you can’t see with the naked eye but are there if you wear the special sunglasses created by a small band of resistance fighters. Turns out they’ve created these glasses that reveals all the messages, the aliens’ true appearance and the weird little flying cameras that act as surveillance everywhere.

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So who’s our hero? ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, that’s who! For those not in the know, Piper was a pro wrestler in the then-WWF, and They Live was his breakthrough film role. True, he’d appeared in Hell Comes to Frogtown the year before, but I think the man’s cinematic legacy begins and ends with this film. The thing is, Piper’s really good in the role – he probably gives the best performance by a wrestler in any film, ever. Yep, better than Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride. Definitely better than Hulk Hogan in Rocky III. Piper’s character is named Nada, though we never hear it mentioned in the film – Nada means ‘nothing’, which from a social mobility scale of things, is pretty much where our man is throughout the film. Homeless and new in town, he manages to find a job working construction, whilst spending his free time at the local soup kitchen and slums with all the other down-and-outs. Nada’s an inquisitive guy though, and he’s suspicious of the comings and goings at the local church, which appears to be holding prayer sing-a-long sessions at four in the morning. Turns out that’s just a cover, and that what’s really going on is a plot to overthrow the aliens. Of course, Nada doesn’t realise any of this just yet, and fellow construction worker Frank (the mighty Keith David) doesn’t want to know anything. He’s got a wife and kids. Just stay out of it, he says. Yet Nada won’t let it go, and after coming across a box of the sunglasses and seeing what’s really going on, he becomes a target. Admittedly, he does bring this on himself by openly insulting the aliens in public, referring to one as ‘formaldehyde-face’ and commenting on one touching up her hair in a mirror that such things is like ‘putting perfume on a pig’. All of a sudden his ‘cover’ is blown and he has to kill a couple of alien cops to get away. One blind detour leads him to hide out in a bank, which, given he’s armed with a shotgun, does raise extreme panic amongst the customers. This leads to the immortal ‘I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum…and I’m all out of bubblegum’ line, which does indeed lead to him blowing away any alien he sees. The thing is, aliens and humans aren’t mutually exclusive – if you want to sell out and work for the aliens, you’ve got it. You’re guaranteed a better job and more money if you do. Still, Nada won’t kill any humans, so he’s not insanely trigger-happy. Still, he’s going to need help, given that the anti-alien HQ and the slums were trashed by the police earlier on. His first port of call is Frank, but he’s not having any of it. He certainly won’t put on the glasses. This leads to my absolute all-time favourite fight scene in the movies. Seriously, this fight is a rough, tough, mean, dirty, funny and really painful looking scrap – David and Piper beat the living shit out of each other for over five minutes, and you really can feel each punch, kick, bite and bodyslam. I mean, Piper was a wrestler – even if this was his foray into another entertainment medium, he had to deliver the old-school goods, and he doesn’t disappoint. Without a doubt, this is one of the most spectacular set-pieces in cinema, and it barely cost a cent. Proof that sometimes, all you need to make great cinema is a good smack in the chops.

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Anyway, Frank does see what’s really going on, and this is when the going gets tough – they reunite with the resistance, and before they can initiate their plan of action, they’re raided by the law, mostly killed, and only Frank and Nada are left to barely escape when they use one of the aliens’ gold watches (which doubles as a teleporter) to arrive at alien HQ, which is where the big hypno-transmissions are coming from. Oh yeah, there’s a disturbingly alien-like human played by Meg Foster (Evil-Lyn from the He-Man movie, boo!) who works for the cable network that’s responsible for the bad airwaves. What follows next I won’t reveal, but let’s just say it’s a wholly satisfying and uncompromising ending. The final montage of scenes are absolutely hilarious, particularly the very last couple of shots. Carpenter always seemed to end his films on an unforgettable shot (the hand/mirror cliffhanger in Prince of Darkness, the empty house/heavy breathing in Halloween, the lights emanating from the spaceship take-off in Starman) and this is no exception.

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I remember catching this on ITV back when they used to show really cool films after the News at Ten (or possibly even later) and it was a real treat then – seeing it in proper widescreen (Carpenter is one of the best 2.35:1 directors) on DVD is even better, and the inventiveness of the visuals (the monochrome sunglasses-vision is particularly striking), the half-dated, half unbeatably addictive score and perfectly judged script (Carpenter has never been so pissed-off at the state of the nation) makes this one of the key science-fiction films of the eighties.

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PS: On the 2008 UK Optimum DVD, the back blurb refers to our leading man as ‘Rowdy’ Roddy POWDER. This amused and angered me in equal measures.