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One of your more interesting cult titles, Buckaroo Banzai has grown a small but fanatically loyal following in the years since its box office flopparoo in 1984. By inventing a franchise hero who combines Doc Savage, The Lone Ranger and a rock 'n roll superstar in one, writer Earl Mac Rauch would have been on the top of a mountain of sequels, tie-ins and merchandising had this first feature succeeded. Purposely confusing and sometimes laboring too hard to be off-the-wall flippant, Buckaroo Banzai nevertheless shapes up as a fun adventure along the lines of a Republic Serial - but with a hip attitude.
What makes a cult film? Buckaroo Banzai certainly qualifies, even if its makers planned for such status from the beginning. Decidedly not hip 1 but refreshingly cool 2, the Hong Kong Cavaliers are a collection of nerds and pretty boys with true-blue devotion to their leader and the United States of America, in that order. Perhaps Buckaroo's time has come, although I think America's probably more ready for DC Comics' Blackhawks to strut their quasi-fascist stuff. 3
As a movie, Buckaroo Banzai could perhaps be better, but could also be an awful lot worse. Remember, the decade after Star Wars brought forth rubbish like The Ice Pirates, camp epics that tried to emulate Lucas and fell on their faces. Director Richter animates Rauch's world with energy and commitment, embracing every awkward situation (the discovery of Penny Priddy crying in a cabaret audience) and making sure every cornball dialogue line is delivered as if it were the most serious utterance ever heard in a movie theater. Even the manic Emilio Lizardo is played straight. The wackiness is unified into something we can care about - a consistently earnest tone, the maintenance of which is no mean feat.
Deadpan Peter Weller puts just enough ironic curve on his delivery to have fun with his role without condescension; he's also sufficiently vulnerable to be an interesting hero. His Cavaliers are nicely orchestrated personalities with varying combinations of the cool and the klunky that allow actors like Pepe Serna and Clancy Brown to be distinctive without reams of 'character color' written into their dialogue. Jeff Goldblum is amusingly green and Ellen Barkin interestingly waifish, even when striding about in a scarlet cocktail dress.
The villains on view are mostly a pack of clowns led by John Lithgow's Lizardo. A tight bundle of goofy mannerisms and extreme facial expressions, Lizardo is wonderful working with the tightass Christopher Lloyd and sub-moron Red Lectroids Schiavelli and Dan Hedaya.
As icing on the cake, the imaginative special effects include interesting organic spaceships, giant flying seashells that look as if they were grown instead of constructed. A handful of different effects shops that sprang up after Star Wars participated in the wide variety of effects that were needed, and these are scaled nicely to the show without overwhelming it. Some of the effects and special makeup actually barely make the grade, yet seem just perfect.
The only real detriments to Buckaroo Banzai are the action scenes and the settings. Without a budget for large sets, altogether too much of the film takes place in (yawn) derelict factories, with endless games of tag being played in nondescript corridors and hallways. The movie also seems a bit shortchanged for rough stuff, and doesn't pay off on the action promised by all the guns, martial arts and samurai hardware brandished by the Cavaliers. On the other hand, this may be a plus for fans sick of the so-called 'science fiction' movies that are really lame action films.
It's fun watching the oddball characters interact and bounce off one another, and the self-conscious cornball factor is a big plus. Scooter Lindley (Damon Hines) rushes out to tell his father Casper (Bill Henderson) that Buckaroo needs help, and receives a 'Say What?' that usually brings down the house. Obnoxious Perfect Tommy (Lewis Smith) is constantly put in his place for being such an egotist, or placated with reminders that he is, after all, perfect. When all the Cavaliers function as a working unit, blending their technical expertise towards a common goal, the picture becomes a kind of Utopia for young adult males: coolness, hi-technology, guns, and rock music. You can imagine the Fox executives sweating when screenings were greeted with mostly smiles and chuckles instead of belly laughs. Word of mouth was good but this isn't the kind of crowd-pleaser that studios understand, then or now.
MGM's DVD of Buckaroo Banzai presents a fine new transfer of the standard 1984 cut in 16:9 and letterboxed for the first time on video. There was an early laser disc that was a collector's treasure even though its squeezed and pan-scanned image looked terrible. This transfer is so good, some of the special effects shots are shown to have optical dirt printed in, a flaw that could have been cleaned up digitally, one could suppose. This Special Edition has a number of unusual extras that will either thrill fans or frustrate them, depending on what they expect from their special edition DVDs.
The extras address one of the main problems that hurt the show when it was new. At the last minute, extraneous background plotting was removed that would have helped some of the relationships make better sense. Thinking the movie too complicated, they jettisoned a prologue that explained Buckaroo's name and heritage, the genesis of the overthruster, and the relationship between Penny Priddy and Buckaroo's dead wife, who looked just like her. Losing this background info (which was presented in a fairly exciting manner) robbed Buckaroo of a lot of needed depth, while alienating literal-minded viewers who wanted all the plot details to add up to an even number.
But Richter and Rauch were anxious to use the Special Edition to promote new life for their one-shot 'franchise' and gave the project much valuable assistance. The extras are consistent with their take on the show, and account for the tongue-in-cheek tone that pretends that Buckaroo is a real historical figure and that the movie is simply an attempt to popularize for the big screen, a small fraction of his many exploits. This conceit is maintained well by Richter and Earl Mac Rauch, who pretends to be the real-life Reno on the main commentary track; hopefully it won't be taken as too taxing by fans who'd prefer a straight approach. Savant himself has no use whatsoever for prank commentaries as found on discs like Blood simple. Besides including BTS looks at the miniatures (with Greg Jein, Savant's old boss in special effects) and the ferocious functioning Jet Car, the extras include the missing deleted scenes that explain Buckaroo's backstory and introduce the all-important unseen character Hanoi Xan (pronounced Shan).
The only extra piece of footage that was found intact on 35mm (instead of VHS) and was therefore able to be reintegrated into the film was an alternate opening that takes the form of the Banzai's home movies from 1954. A series of outtakes of Clancy Brown's narration were found and a new audio opening cut from them, as no track was located.4 This alternate opening, which features James Saito and Jamie Lee Curtis (!) as Buckaroo's parents, is offered both as a stand-alone extra, and as an alternate seamless branch during DVD playback. It bears the original title, just plain Buckaroo Banzai. It's funny that original distributor 20th-Fox wanted to simplify the story, but opted to complicate the title into such a desperate-sounding final concoction. Can't anyone learn from The Fearless Vampire Killers, or pardon me, but your teeth are in my neck? It was once the elegant Dance of the Vampires.
The Internet Movie Database lists a director's long cut, as if Buckaroo Banzai had been finished with these scenes and others intact. It wasn't, and none of the 35mm work print elements for longer cuts were found in the scraps and snips of trims and outs still archived for the film. They were undoubtedly carefully set aside, and .... who knows? The fact that Buckaroo was an independent handed off to a series of rights holders and libraries before coming to MGM didn't simplify the research process. Therefore, the only element for the missing scenes was Richter's own VHS of a work print-in-progress transferred to let the sound cutters get a head start. This is the original for the many bootlegs, so at least it's good VHS quality. Every snipped section is presented with handles that help place it in context within the film. A couple of unused scenes that didn't even make the VHS are included, from 35mm work print trims; the sound on these was poorly transferred to mag film and is therefore almost inaudible.5 The project producer hoped to reconstitute more of the scenes Richter would have liked to reinstate, but found only the prologue. The audio for that had to be reinvented from scratch.
Savant still finds Buckaroo Banzai to be amusing and diverting; his kids think it's great. It's certainly out of the ordinary, which in these cookie cutter days of entertainment is high praise. Finally available in a good widescreen transfer, it's really worth checking out.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Defined as fashionable, narcissistic and exclusionary, as in
Our Man Flint. Radiating Hipness always carries the implication that others around you are not hip.
2. On the other hand, Coolness is simply being at ease with one's
individuality and uniqueness. You aspire to the right appearance and behavior to be Cool, although the
fastest route to Coolness is just aggressively being yourself, assuming you're a positive individual.
On the other hand, misfits and outcasts can be Cool just by being true to their natures. The
Frankenstein monster is a beautiful person, man, and is as Cool as they come ... without an ounce
4. This accounts for the different wording from the much-circulated VHS
work print, and a different year named for the demise of Buckaroo's parents.
5. Savant cut the docu and the alternate opening, and helped compile the video extras on the disc,
so take all his comments with that in mind. I've tried to be as objective as possible.