The Lost Action Hero: The Cult Of BUCKAROO BANZAI

The Lost Action Hero: The Cult Of BUCKAROO BANZAI

There are some cult movies that take on an unexpected afterlife powered by the slow-burn effect of word of mouth. Reservoir Dogs, for example, was only a very modest hit when it was first released in 1992, but before too long the images, dialogue, and music had seeped into mass popular culture.

It was the kind of film that you would demand that your friends go and see, and brag that you’d seen it first before anyone else, and then later you’d dismiss it slightly when suddenly everyone else had seen it, including people you didn’t much care for. The Usual Suspects was another one.

But then there are other cult films whose merits you deliberately keep to yourself, lest the secret gets out. Some films, you don’t want to become popular; you want them to just be yours. Upon the rarefied mantelpiece of such secret cult movies, I suspect that W.D. Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension takes pride of place; there was something imperceptible about this unique film that never really left me, so I recently revisited Buckaroo’s world, courtesy of a superb new Blu-Ray transfer.

“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s to be mistaken for somebody else.”

The Lost Action Hero: The Cult Of BUCKAROO BANZAI
source: MGM

I was struck by a sense of déjà vu at the climax of Buckaroo, which brought back vivid memories of Wes Anderson’s rather divisive 2004 underwater opus The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. It wasn’t just that Anderson had stolen…er, paid tribute to the closing titles sequence from Buckaroo, or that both films featured a group of adults obsessed with their own self-created club paraphernalia, it was more that I never warmed to either film on the first viewing.

Neither film was a box office triumph upon release, but Buckaroo Banzai especially (and with 20 extra years to percolate in the mind) has woven a magic spell over a devoted band of followers. Anderson is an ardent vocal supporter, and Kevin Smith is such a fan that he tried recently (and failed) to spearhead a new Buckaroo Banzai TV show.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension shares some DNA with many goofily titled, ‘wacky’ movies from the early-mid 1980s like Leonard Part 6, Howard The Duck and Big Trouble in Little China that might possibly have been bankrolled after Time Bandits unexpectedly made an absolute fortune in 1980. While one has to question the very sanity of a Howard The Duck devotee, Big Trouble in Little China has risen like Buckaroo from a box office quagmire to become a beloved cult film darling. The two films share several things: a tremendous sense of fun, a rigid adherence to their own specific unique internal logic, and the presence of director W.D. Richter.

Big Trouble’s co-writer, Richter had made a name for himself as a highly skilled interpreter, rewriting Don Siegel’s Invasion of The Body Snatchers for Phillip Kaufman in 1979, and John Badham’s Dracula remake in 1979. Buckaroo Banzai, though, was an original concept based on a new kind of hero dreamt up by his college buddy Earl Mac Rauch (who had recently written Scorsese’s New York, New York).

Around the time of its release, many ’80s movies were forged around the concept of a group of kids getting into adventures (ET: The Extra Terrestrial, The Goonies, Explorers). Buckaroo Banzai develops this further into the impossibly delicious idea of continuing the kids-club unit into adulthood. The Hong Kong Cavaliers are not just a formidably intelligent band of brothers, known and revered as heroes worldwide and with the ear of The President (Raiders villain Ronald Lacey), but to add to the teenage fantasy of it all, they also play regular gigs, with Buckaroo taking centre stage on lead guitar.

Globally feted physicist (and part-time neurosurgeon and rock star) Buckaroo Banzai takes part in an experiment to drive through solid matter in a jet-car powered with his patented Oscillation Overthruster – cinematic precursor to Doc Brown’s Flux Capacitor. Though the test is a success, it unleashes an invasion of Red Lectroids from the 8th Dimension whose leader, the partially possessed Italian scientist Dr. Emilio Lizardo, breaks out of an asylum to steal Buckaroo’s device and return to Planet Ten, destroying the world in the process. Or something like that.…

“Lectroids? Planet Ten? Nuclear extortion? A girl named John?”

The Lost Action Hero: The Cult Of BUCKAROO BANZAI
source: MGM

If you find yourself scratching your head at times, don’t worry, you are not alone. Most of the cast had no idea what they were signing up for either, yet it is clear from the interviews in the new documentary that everyone involved holds immense affection for Buckaroo Banzai, especially leading men Peter Weller and John Lithgow, who plays Dr. Lizardo with a ripe Italian accent that he borrowed wholesale from his costume designer. One of the loveliest DVD extra discoveries is the fact that Cavaliers Peter Weller and Jeff Goldblum, both fine musicians, have carried on playing gigs together under different group-names, up to the present day.

Over time, Buckaroo Banzai has had to overcome the straight-jacket of the overpowering 1980s-ness that led to hundreds of films being fenced collectively and irrespective of genre into the pig pen of ‘Cheesy Eighties Movies, almost as soon as the decade was over. Over thirty years later, it’s easier now to see past the rolled-up jacket sleeves and the kind of synthesiser scores that existed for exactly ten years in a row before Hollywood abolished them – in this case a sweet, energetic, Faltermeyer-like affair by Michael Boddicker.

The pin-sharp transfer to Blu-Ray certainly helps the reevaluation process; after decades of being passed around like contraband by those in the know as a scratchy VHS cassette, the film hasn’t looked this good since it made its limited debut in 1984. The early scenes are especially vivid – the rock concert resembles a ‘Cinema du Look’ scene from an early Luc Besson movie. These initial scenes were shot by Blade Runner DP Jordan Cronenweth, whose slow shooting speed led to him being replaced by the producers (much to Peter Weller’s chagrin) by the Oscar-winning cinematographer, Fred J. Koenekamp.

It’s a children’s film but it isn’t childish. The creative minds behind and in front of the camera were fertile and feverish. W.D. Richter’s skills as a writer condense Mac Rauch’s crazed and outlandish vision into something that, while unique and pleasantly lunatic, has a fixed linear thrust. So often such films (see Howard The Duck) are clearly the result of a nightmarish, rudderless shoot, pieced together in desperation by an editor with a gun pressed into their temples. Buckaroo Banzai has its own logic and it sticks to its own rules from start to finish.

The perfect balance of tone is maintained by a well-selected cast that weigh the scales between deadpan, sincere and stoic (Weller) and utterly off-the-wall (Lithgow). The cast is top-heavy with actors on the cusp of super-stardom. Head alien Christopher Lloyd is a year away from adapting a Delorean into a time machine, Jeff Goldblum, dressed (delightfully) in a kid’s cowboy costume, probably had Cronenberg’s script for The Fly in his trailer, and Highlander’s memorable villain Clancy Brown is given a rare heroic role as Rawhide, Buckaroo’s longtime confidant (and piano player). One scene that will bring a tear to the eye of any aficionados of scene-stealing-character-actors features Dan Hedya, Vincent Schiavelli and John Ashton in his last role before becoming Detective Taggart in the box office juggernaut Beverly Hills Cop.

The Lost Action Hero: The Cult Of BUCKAROO BANZAI
source: MGM

This, though, is very much a Boy’s Club. The film literally doesn’t know what to do with Penny Priddy, the token love interest who is there largely to visibly not understand what is going on, and who inevitably gets herself tied to a torture device so that she can be rescued by the chaps. Fortunately, Penny is played by the hugely charismatic Ellen Barkin in one of her first roles before going interstellar in The Big Easy. While we’re being critical, it’s worth mentioning that for a film described as a comedy adventure, the film isn’t actually ‘funny’ in the classic sense of the word – at our school, back in ’86, I remember it was turned off halfway through by laugh-seeking sixth formers in favour of Police Academy 2 (God help us).

“In the miserable annals of the earth, you will be duly enshrined.”

However, the biggest revelation is Peter Weller as the eponymous hero. An actor so often confined and contained (literally in his two RoboCop movies), here he is liberated, yelling lines like “There! Evil, pure and simple by way of the Eighth Dimension!” as though his very life depended on it. Basing the character, by his own admission on Elia Kazan, Jaques Cousteau and Adam Ant, Weller’s Buckaroo Banzai provides a glimpse of a lost sex symbol who should have dominated the 1980s with his mysterious allure and high cheekbones.

Like a lot of films that travelled under the radar – it only took 12 months for its most famous line, “Remember, no matter where you go, there you are” to be referenced in Mad Max Beyond ThunderdomeBuckaroo Banzai has built up a tight-knit audience who love it with a jealous intensity.

For a sub-section of cineliterate fortysomething man-kids, this has been a personal Holy Grail, hidden away from the corrupting gaze of the idiot masses. Having passed the age test, when so many 34 year old films have withered critically, and based upon this handsomely curated Blu-Ray, Buckaroo Banzai’s fans might soon have to release, however grudgingly, their favourite child out into the ownership of a wider public. I know it’s hard, but like the movie famously suggests, “So what? Big deal.”

“Don’t be mean. We don’t have to be mean.”

Is there a cult movie in your life that you hold onto jealously like a childhood teddy, one that you would hate to see being rediscovered by an unworthy new audience that wouldn’t truly understand it? Now could be the time to get something off your chest. Share if you dare.

Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.
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Lapsed scriptwriter and dad, currently failing to encourage my children to watch black and white films. Alter-ego: a mild-mannered restaurateur in north Wales. Have been writing about films and food for three years in magazines like Cinema Retro and The Chap, and on websites like HeyUGuys.com and Taste of Cinema. Obsessed by cinema in all its forms.