Yet another Schwartz-measuring contest.
2) Good vs Evil
- Jack Burton, a cocky but good-hearted American trucker who’s become embroiled in this ridiculous plot. In addition to never driving faster than he can see, Jack is a burly man of action whose gutsy impulsiveness screws him over about as often as it saves the day. Curiously, though Burton is presented as the protagonist, if you look at his role in the story objectively he’s much closer to being the sidekick– another clever move on Carpenter’s part. Played by national treasure Kurt Russell.
- Armed with: A small machine gun and a knife hidden in his boot.
- Wang Chi, Jack’s friend and arguably the real hero of the story. A first-generation Chinese immigrant, Wang is quintessentially American, having built a business and a new life through pure hard work. He’s also a capable martial artist and is determined to do anything to recover his beloved. Played by Dennis Dun.
- Armed with: A Chinese sword.
- Egg Shen, the Yoda/Obi-Wan of Chinatown– a lovably crotchety old sorcerer who fights on behalf of good. Though an excellent character, Shen is one of the looser parts of the movie’s backstory; it’s not fully explained who he is besides being Lo Pan’s ancient enemy, and if he is, shouldn’t that mean he also is over 2000 years old, but better preserved for some reason? Regardless, he’s a real hoot, especially as played by the late Victor Wong.
- Armed with: His own significant mystical powers, and also a bag filled with several stones that act as, essentially, magic grenades.
- The Chang Sing, or at least the five members who survived the previous encounter.
- Armed with: Various handheld weapons.
- Lo Pan, the film’s villain. An ancient, evil wizard whose power has been trapped for 2000 years in the decaying (but never dying) flesh of a mortal businessman. Up until this point, Pan has switched between his crippled human body and his mystical but immaterial & largely powerless true form. Played with unmatched gusto by the great James Hong.
- Thunder, the most active and visible member of the Three Storms. As fits his name (note: unless I missed it, none of the Storms are addressed by name on-screen), Thunder’s power lies in his incredible strength. Played by Carter Wong.
- Rain, the member of the Three Storms who specializes in high-flying agility. Played by Peter Kwong.
- Lightning, the member of the Three Storms who can fire electricity. Played by James Pax.
- The Wing Kong, a couple dozen or so of them.
- Armed with: Various handheld weapons.
Just before the good guys enter the chamber, all of them chug a potion provided by Egg Shen, which gives them a temporary magical boost to put them on par with their enemy’s superior numbers (and the power of the Three Storms, who the mortals had previously been unable to touch). Additionally, it provides a “great buzz” and seems to help one of the Chang Sings be more open about his sexuality.
Also present are the captive ladies, Gracie Law and Miao Yin.
The Setup: The heroic duo’s previous effort to infiltrate Lo Pan’s headquarters and rescue Miao Yin turned up largely fruitless (or worse, since Gracie got kidnapped at the end too), they’ve returned in force now. They arrive just in time to interrupt Pan’s wedding ceremony. He needs to marry and then sacrifice a green-eyed woman, which will appease his dark god and restore his youth, blah blah blah mumbo jumbo. Since fate dropped another green-eyed temptress in his lap in the form of Gracie, Pan intends to sacrifice one bride and keep the other for himself. I know what you’re thinking: Son of a bitch MUST pay.
Having made their way through the catacombs Burton’s band of magically juiced-up soldiers break into the wedding chamber.
The Fight: As the good guys cheer just before their assault, Jack goes a bit too far, and fires his gun into the ceiling.
It ends up knocking loose some chunks of the stone ceiling, which fall on his head and daze him for a few minutes. Nice job, hero.
For everyone else, the battle goes from zero to crazy pretty quick. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the good guys kick some serious ass. For the most part, their enhanced abilities are underplayed– when they start fighting against their evil counterparts, it looks like they’re fighting normally (i.e., no crazy special effects or sped-up movement), but they’re consistently able to overpower and outmaneuver their foes.
Of course, it helps that Egg Shen is there to even the odds a little bit more by intermittently tossing off his magic grenades.
Wang spends almost the entire battle occupied with Rain. The mortal man’s agility is greatly improved by Egg’s potion, and he cockily shows off no shortage of impossible leaps, multiple consecutive flips and other gymnastic feats as he duels with the high-flying demi-god. It’s neat, and Dennis Dun (with help from his stunt double, presumably) cuts quite the impressively nimble figure, even stopping to occasionally throw some non-verbal taunts at his opponent. But it goes on just a bit too long, it’s fairly repetitive, and Hollywood’s facility with wire-fu was about a generation away from capturing what Carpenter was aiming for here; it’s not exactly Crouching Tiger.
Meanwhile, the handful of Chang Sing cut pretty effortlessly through their remaining rivals, and Jack eventually rejoins the battle. He tries to open fire on Lo Pan, but his gun is seized and crushed by the deadly Thunder.
One of Egg’s bombs is able to take Thunder out of the combat zone temporarily, but that still leaves Jack to deal with an armored warrior. He struggles to get the knife out of his boot, and ends up surprising his foe by shoving the blade through the bottom of his footwear and kick-impaling it through his chest.
Unfortunately, he gets it so deeply embedded that he ends up awkwardly pinned underneath the warrior’s corpse.
This leaves Egg Shen to deal with Lo Pan, who has conducted enough of the ceremony to make himself flesh once again. Interestingly, Hong’s reactions to Shen convey more about their rivalry than anything in the dialogue; the mixture of irritation and hesitant condescension he greets Shen with indicates the old man isn’t quite the Superman to his Lex Luthor, but Shen’s still powerful enough for Pan to take him seriously.
Egg first launches a firework-like projectile that misses L0 Pan, which the villain scoffs at as “peasant magic.” The two then each fire a magical beam from their rings, and when the lights meet in mid-air, the clash of the sorcerers’ power is represented by the silhouettes of two imposing warriors who fight in stately, slow-motion combat.
It’s an unexpected bit of bonkers filmmaking and really quite delightful. Hong makes it even wilder when he gleefully twitches his thumbs, as if he’s pantomiming playing a video game.
The magic-hologram battle ends in an apparent stalemate after the projections have a particularly strong clash which collapses the entire thing. Still, Lo Pan even finds room to sneer over a tie, telling his old foe “you never could beat me.”
Lightning arrives and tries to take out Egg Shen, who bounces his blasts back with a metal fan. Meanwhile, Lo Pan escapes with Miao Yin and Thunder, and Lightning knocks some debris loose to block the entrance to any pursuers. Wang finally finishes off Rain with a thrown sword, sending the warrior through a wall that allows the heroes to pursue.
From here it’s pretty much over. Even a surprise encounter with the Rob Bottin version of Chewbacca is handled with alarming ease. By Gracie, no less.
Jack and Gracie share some smooches in the elevator (leaving him with some rather undignified lipstick smear for the climactic showdown). They track down the two villains, and first face off with Thunder, who Wang is able to sidetrack by drawing him into another room. This leaves Jack to share another one of his patented half-amazing/half-bullshit speeches, then he flings his knife at Lo Pan.
It misses. Wildly. Looking amused (while everyone else groans at Jack, Jack included), the villain retrieves the blade, admires it, and throws it back. But with catlike speed, Burton catches it in air, and throws it right back at Lo Pan, hitting him square in the forehead.
That’s because it’s all in the reflexes.
From there it’s not too interesting. Lightning gets taken out in a rather boring way as the heroes all escape, letting a chunk of stone drop on his immortal head. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Thunder, after seeing his boss’ corpse, does this:
Then he explodes, accomplishing exactly nothing because the heroes avoid it simply by going around the corner. It’s wild, though.
The bulk of this fight is taken up by a similar sort of chaotic mass battle we saw last time, but executed with much more panache and given lots of extra flavor by adding in our known characters, some crazy magical combat and bits of comedy. Though they do suffer some delays accomplishing their overall goal, the momentum is very clearly on the protagonists’ side during the fight and they don’t experience any true setbacks or pains along the way. This ought to rob suspense from the encounter but instead gives it a manic energy, making it thrilling and triumphant.
And that ending! In another sly move, Carpenter effectively takes his “hero” out of the action for the majority of the fight, leaving the ostensible supporting cast to do most of the work. But Jack Burton still comes through when it means the most, even after a ridiculously stupid setback. It takes a genius like 1980s John Carpenter to be able to have his cake and eat it too– to make Burton a badass AND a clown.
On a purely technical level, this showdown is no great shakes, but everything taken together it’s a rollicking good time for the ages.
Coming Attractions: A man without fear.