“Expect the unexpected. He does.”
Directed by W.D. Richter
Starring Peter Weller, Ellen Barkin, John Lithgow, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd and Clancy Brown
During a test of his experimental supersonic jet car, Japanese-American neurosurgeon, particle physicist, martial artist and musician Buckaroo Banzai (Weller) activates the oscillation overthruster, a device which allows him to pass into the solid matter of a mountain, thus entering the 8th Dimension. On hearing of this, Lord John Whorfin, and alien in the body of Dr Emilio Lizardo (Lithgow) breaks out of an asylum to reunite with his lieutenants, the Red Lectroids.
Banzai and his band of hard-rocking scientists/musicians/freelance evil-punchers the Hong Kong Cavaliers, aided by the Blue Blaze Irregulars (a network of civilian helpers) and Banzai’s direct-dial privileges to the White House, set out to thwart Whorfin/Lizardo before the Black Lectroids, the comparatively peaceful ruling faction of Planet 10, precipitate a nuclear war in order to ensure their enemy’s destruction.
What’s wrong with it?
If that synopsis didn’t give it away already, Buckaroo Banzai is a film with a lot going on, and it’s not always the most coherent of narratives.
The Lectroids are all called John. What’s that about?
Christopher Lloyd plays Whorfin’s second in command, John Bigboote, and about half of his scenes with Lithgow comprise Whorfin calling him ‘Bigbooty’ while he insists on ‘Bigbootay’.
Oh my stars, Lithgow’s accent.
The director clearly chose not to exercise the slightest restraint on Lithgow or Lloyd, who treat the scenery like bubblegum throughout.
There really is only one female character, Penny Priddy (Barkin), the love interest who turns out to be the long-lost identical twin sister of Banzai’s deceased wife, a fact which gets surprisingly little consideration for what it is.
Despite referring to Banzai’s martial arts expertise, the film clearly had no actual martial arts coordinator.
What’s right with it?
Actually, there is another female character. The leader of the Black Lectroids, John Emdall, and having a black woman (all the Black Lectroids are played by black actors) in a position of authority was still pretty progressive.
Peter Weller’s Banzai is just so god damn cool.
The film just goes to eleven, from Lithgow’s… everything to Black Lectroid ambassador John Parker’s weird loping run as they sneak into the Red Lectroid base, in which a calm tannoy voice warns workers that ‘monkey boys have entered the facility’ and signs advise ‘No-one cumz in here. SEKRIT!’
Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers are a group of globe-trotting musical science heroes who tackle threats like the Red Lectroids and the World Crime League (from the promised, but alas never delivered sequel, Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League) and their sinister leader, Hanoi Xan, and that’s fucking awesome.
The Blue Blaze Irregulars are a terrifyingly prescient depiction of a devoted internet fanbase. If long-time members of the film’s cult following don’t refer to themselves as such, I would be very surprised.
How bad is it really?
There is a part of my brain that knows that this film is probably terrible, but just as some film manage to take a bunch of excellent parts and produce a big heap of crap, Buckaroo Banzai takes its garbled mess of SF elements, pop-culture references (many now seriously dated,) cheesy special effects and raw, sometimes excessive enthusiasm and create something far more than the some of those parts. Something fun, something goofy, something so cool that even thirty-two years later it still looks kinda cool.
Word is, Kevin Smith is making a TV series based on the film, and I’m so down with that. I’m particularly looking forward to the fuss when he does or doesn’t (I don’t think it will matter) cast a Japanese-American lead.
Best bit (if such there is)?
The end credit sequence is just… You know what, just watch it; yeah?
This is the pure, distilled essence of everything awesome about the eighties.
What’s up with…?
- Emilio Lizardo’s accent?
- Lord John Whorfin? Why is he such a threat again?
Production values – The film had a budget about half that of The Return of the Jedi and it shows in effects that have aged less well than ILM’s masterwork, but the Blu Ray version is beautifully restored and the costumes are like a piece of pop-culture history. 10
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue is not always clear, in part I suspect because of the age of the audio print, and a lot of the performances are deliriously OTT, but the script abounds with cool one liners, and remember: Wherever you go, there you are. 8
Plot and execution – The plot is pretty damned complicated and the pace is breakneck; it’s easy to miss things. That being said, it’s a lot more coherent than I remembered it being. 7
Randomness – Lithgow’s wig? Lithgow’s accent? Neurosurgeon/martial artist/particle physicist/musician? 12
Waste of potential – One thing you can’t accuse this film of is waste. What it’s got, it works, yet is never so uncool as to look as if it is trying. 3