So I was in the mood for something undemanding and escapist, and boy did I get it... in a good way, that is. Carpenter has made some excellent, highly original films (They Live, In The Mouth Of Madness), some which, whatever you think of them, have earned their place in the genre hall of fame (Halloween) and many absolute shockers of the I-want-that-90-minutes-of-my-life-back variety.
The plot follows truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) as, in pursuit of a gambling debt, he helps his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) try to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend (with the help of Gracie Law [Kim Cattrall of Sex and the City fame]) and, in the process, gets mixed up in an ancient, supernatural turf war in Chinatown, in which he and his motley gang must face down Lo Pan (James Hong), an ancient and evil sorcerer.
To get the criticisms out of the way: the dialogue is atrocious and at times absurd. The set-up of the plot doesn't really make any sense. Most obviously, the story is highly orientalist, even racist, in the way it trades in Fu Manchu stereotypes of the ancient mysticism and evil of the Orient - although at least there are many positively portrayed Asian characters as well as Lo Pan and his evil hordes.
Having said that, I enjoyed this movie a lot. It's full of a raucous energy which I found irresistible - indeed, in that aspect, as well as the orientalism, it reminded me a lot of another fun 80s action/horror/comedy, Gremlins. I'd tie these and other eighties movies with similar subject matter (The Karate Kid and so forth) to a climate in which, on the one hand, there was a lot of fear around the rising Japanese economy, while at the same time there was a growing but shallow interest in manifestations of Asian culture (and the movie does attempt to link the film in to Chinese religions and mythologies with a sprinkling of names and concepts taken from these narratives, naturally completely out of context) - the fear/fascination combination typical of orientalism.
The action is nice but there are no interminable action sequences, the soundtrack is gorgeously classic eighties synth cheese, the costumes have a similar overblown charm, and the near-ubiquitous special effects (this was a big-budget Hollywood production) stand up well considering that the film is now twenty years old. Russell himself plays the typical macho, misogynistic, smart-guy action hero, which is a thing that usually irritates me no end; but here this is balanced by various moments of parody of that figure, played out in the misadventures Russell experiences as he plays the tough guy. The humour is mostly fairly low-grade, but there were a few hilarious moments which actually had me chuckling out loud, a fairly rare occurrence.
Overall, well, if you're the type of person who goes for this kind of thing you know who you are. On the other hand, if you can't overlook the typical flaws of commercial films, particularly action films (and I should add that personally I'm not at all a fan of the 'action' genre as such), or the orientalist character of the work, this is definitely not for you. But considering that I approach Carpenter movies with some trepidation, I had a lot of fun with this film - and it's definitely one for the classics-of-eighties-fantasy-cheese collection.