Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review: Buckaroo Banzai

The full title, of course, is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. I hadn't seen this cult classic in years. Like, many years. I think I may have been about 12 years old. For some reason, on impulse, I obtained and viewed this movie recently, while my son and I enjoyed the best plate of homemade sausage hash I have ever made. I was struck by two things: Peter Weller didn't always look like Skeletor, and I'm pretty sure the characters were inspired by Doc Savage and his group of stalwart aides.

Like Doc, Buckaroo is a master of brain surgery. Like Doc, he is an inventor and physicist on the cutting edge of modern technology (well beyond it, actually). Like Doc, he is an accomplished musician (Doc is a violinist and composer, while Buckaroo fronts a rock'n'roll band--Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Caveliers). Like Doc, Buckaroo has a group of fiercely loyal buddies, all of whom are inferior to him but whose help he nevertheless needs. Furthermore, they've all got colorful nicknames. Where Doc has Monk, Ham, Long Tom, Johnny, and Renny, Buckaroo has Rawhide, Perfect Tommy, New Jersey, Pinky, and Reno. Luckily for him, these cronies stand in as his backup band, fighting force, and support team.

The movie itself was directed by W.D. Richter, who has never quite achieved Hollywood greatness. In fact, Buckaroo Banzai was such a dismal failure, financially, that the production company that made it broke up. Richter, of course, would go on to at least One Awesome Thing - he co-wrote my favorite comedy/action movie, the unadulterated classic Big Trouble in Little China.

The best thing about this film - which has its ups and downs on almost every other front - is the cast. Peter Weller - despite not looking even remotely half-Japanese - plays the lead. John Lithgow hams it up as the arch-villain, ably supported by an incredible trio of character actors: Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) and the lesser-known Dan Hedaya (Blood Simple) and Vincent Schiavelli (Amadeus, Better Off Dead). Among Buckaroo's team is a young Jeff Goldblum, who does his usual stretch of an acting job playing a character that is exactly like Jeff Goldblum, and the underrated Clancy Brown (Highlander, the voice of Mr. Crabbs on Spongebob Squarepants, and the voice of Lex Luther in Justice League Unlimited). Carl Lumbly, who plays an alien, also did a voice on Justice League - Martian Manhunter. And finally, if you ever forgot how hot Ellen Barkin was (and still is), check out her role as the ridiculously named "Penny Pretty," Buckaroo's suicidal love interest.

The movie is odd. It's strangely edited and often feels disjointed. But it has a compelling quality that kept me watching. It's worth another look, and I will say that the effects hold up rather well over the years. Jon Lithgow's performance is so over-the-top that it rivals that of Jeffrey Jones in the similarly odd Howard the Duck - but that's another entry. Doc Savage fans can tell me whether they think they see any parallels between Doc and Buckaroo.

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