The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
“Expect the unexpected. He does.”
Director: W. D. Richter
Cast: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin
Synopsis: Adventurer/surgeon/rock musician Buckaroo Banzai and his band of men, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, take on evil alien invaders from the 8th dimension.
Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is a super-efficient hero who is equally adept at performing brain surgery as he is at fronting his own rock band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers. In fact, he seems to apply as much attention to each of these activities as we lesser mortals would to making a cup of tea or picking our nose. Brilliance is a given, so it’s no surprise when he succeeds in driving his hyper-charged jet vehicle through solid rock and emerging unscathed on the other side. Whilst passing through, he sees within the rock strange creatures called Lectroids, who live in the 8th dimension. Back in the 1930s, the same experiment was attempted by Banzai’s colleague Professor Hikita (Robert Ito) and Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), but Lizardo only succeeded in plunging himself halfway into a solid rock, during which he was possessed by the evil Lord John Whorfin, leader of the Red Lectroids.
Lizardo, all wild hair and bad teeth, sees Banzai’s successful experiment on TV from his room in an insane asylum and makes his escape, planning to steal our hero’s oscillation overthruster, the little gadget which made Banzai’s attempt a success, so that he can free his trapped buddies. Banzai, meanwhile, is distracted by the shapely but suicidal form of Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin). She’s the spitting image of his dead wife, who was murdered by the evil leader of the World Crime League — whom Banzai was scheduled to encounter in the sequel which, although optimistically announced at the end of this movie, never materialised due to Banzai’s one weak spot: a failure to succeed at the box office.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai presents us with a ready-made hero, as if we’ve just purchased the eighth issue of an on-going comic book serial, which is probably why the story seems to be all over the place most of the time. Banzai has a pre-assembled cast of sidekicks — apart from Jeff Goldblum’s new boy New Jersey, who unaccountably spends most of the movie wearing a cowboy outfit, including furry chaps, once he’s recruited. Most of the Cavaliers are pretty anonymous — as is Weller in the title role — and are really only there to make up the numbers and to give Banzai someone through whom he can attempt to explain to the audience what’s going on. The villains are a lot more fun, with Lithgow having a whale of a time as the demented Lizardo/Whalen. He’s aided by Dan Hedaya, Vincent Schiavelli and Christopher Lloyd, all of whose characters are named John, and who round out a cast of names that looks far more impressive today than it probably did back in 1984.
The closest comparison to Banzai is probably the 1930s comic book hero Doc Savage, and in fact it’s entirely possible that Banzai is modelled on the Doc. But, like Savage, who was played by former TV Tarzan Ron Ely in an ill-fated 1970s outing, Banzai largely falls flat after a promising opening act, due to an increasingly muddled storyline. Weller and the Hong Kong Cavalier’s play every line deadpan straight, while the bad guys are played mostly for laughs, giving the movie a kind of lop-sided feel, as if it can’t decide whether it’s trying to be a spoof or a satire.
Overall, although The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai has acquired a cult following since its release and was, in many ways, ahead of its time, it simply doesn’t have the depth of quality to keep it interesting. Despite what is now an impressive cast, the performances are fairly pedestrian, and the whole thing has the look of an ambitious TV movie rather than a theatrical one. It is, however, quintessentially 80s with a surfeit of questionable fashions and hair-dos and an enduring cheesiness that somehow adds to its appeal whilst also dating it badly. A curio, then, but nothing more.
(Reviewed 16th June 2013)