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Buckaroo is back! There exists a Blu-ray release from a company called 'Umbrella', but I could not resist this Region B Blu from Arrow Video, which adds new extras to the ones concocted for the first MGM DVD back in early 2002. W.D. Richter and Earl Mac Rauch must have bristled at the success of the Indiana Jones franchise, and promoted the wild and wooly pulp hero Buckaroo with the idea of creating their own ever-broadening super-franchise. Today's 'extended universe' pulp franchises of Marvel superheroes dominate all action filmmaking. One would think that rights holders would be scrambling to re-ignite the equally rich franchises of heroes like Doc Savage. Well, I guess they tried that with John Carter, and got their fingers scorched. The Banzai cult is small but enthusiastic, so I think we need to chalk up the hero's one screen outing The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension as a success. 1
The title was originally a box office flopparoo in 1984. Had things gone differently with a hero who combines Doc Savage, The Lone Ranger and a rock 'n roll superstar, writer Earl Mac Rauch would have been on the top of a mountain of sequels, tie-ins and merchandising. 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 relentlessly hip attitude. The particular hip attitude employed may tickle some viewers and annoy others -- there's no way of telling. I mean, there's still a fan base out there for the animated buddy ensembles in Hanna-Barbera's Jonny Quest, not to mention their Top Cat.
Grab a pencil because I'm only going through this once. Surgeon, rock musician, particle physicist and commander of the Hong Kong Cavaliers, Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) comes back from a trip to the 8th dimension with the ability to see the villainous Red Lectroids who have come from that alternate reality and are living among us. They've taken possession of Doctor Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow) who now goes by the name of Lord John Whorfin. Red Lectroids John Bigboote (Christopher Lloyd) and John O'Connor (Vincent Schiavelli) steal the Oscillation Overthruster invented by Professor Hikita (Robert Ito) and are working to return to and re-conquer the 8th dimension. But the lawful, benign Black Lectroids don't want them back. Black Lectroid John Parker (Carl Lumbly) brings a grim message from leader John Emdall (Rosalind Cash): Earth will be destroyed unless Buckaroo and his Cavaliers stop the Red Lectroids in time. Buckaroo contacts stalwarts Reno (Pepe Serna) and Rawhide (Clancy Brown) and enlists new members New Jersey (Jeff Goldblum) and Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin) into the crusade to make the Earth safe from the Red Lectroid scum.
What makes a cult film? Buckaroo Banzai certainly qualifies even if its makers planned for such status from the beginning. Buckaroo's action team the Hong Kong Cavaliers is a collection of nerds and pretty boys devoted to their true-blue leader and the United States of America, in that order. Small boys will always respond to the kind of male camaraderie being proffered by the Cavaliers. It's the kind of love of 'the corps' eventually leads to the worship of secret military forces and uniform fetishism. I'm surprised nobody's tapped DC Comics' Blackhawks, that quasi-fascist group of freedom fighters decked out in Nazi-like uniforms. America rejected the Archie Andrews-meets-the-Wehrmacht Starship Troopers, but I think they missed its messages. The Hong Kong Cavaliers are so virtuous that they could be working for Hopalong Cassidy. Except maybe for the creepy male model Perfect Tommy (Lewis Smith). He's supposed to be a babe magnet but looks more like a new icon for the Village People.
As a movie, Buckaroo Banzai could perhaps be better, but it's often successful in its aims. Remember, the decade following 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 and making sure every cornball dialogue line is delivered as if it were the most serious utterance ever heard in a movie theater. Penny Priddy is discovered crying in a cabaret audience, and invited into the clan, as if her arrival had been foretold by an oracle. Even the manic, expressionist Emilio Lizardo is played straight, which is amazing considering that John Lithgow appears to be channeling Brigitte Helm as the Evil Maria from Metropolis. The wackiness is unified into a consistently earnest tone, the maintenance of which is no mean feat.
Deadpan Peter Weller puts just enough irony into his delivery to have fun with his role without condescension; he's also sufficiently vulnerable to be interesting as a hero. His Cavaliers are nicely orchestrated personalities with varying combinations of the cool and the klunky. Actors like Pepe Serna and Clancy Brown are 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 his Red Lectroid henchmen, the tight-ass Christopher Lloyd and the sub-morons Schiavelli and Dan Hedaya. They're best when they're pissed off and misbehaving, a nice relief from the cool, controlled bad guys that would dominate later stuff like The Matrix. In the annals of screenwriters trying to invent a franchise world from the ground up, Banzai gets a solid A-minus.
As icing on the cake, the imaginative special effects include interesting spaceships that look like giant flying seashells, as if they were grown, as opposed to constructed. A handful of 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. We can see that there was no budget to go all out, or even to try to compete with LucasLand Limited. Dream Quest Images did most of the motion control photography, but did not do the optical compositing work, which adds a lot of dirt to the illusions.
The only thing really lacking in Buckaroo Banzai are its action scenes and some of 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 shortchanged for rough stuff. It has some shotgun stunts but doesn't pay off on the action potential promised by all the guns, martial arts and samurai hardware brandished by the Cavaliers. On the other hand, that may be a plus for fans weary of so-called Sci-fi movies that are really lame action films. Three years later, Paul Verhoeven shoved Sci-fi into the violent extremes seen in graphic novels, in the still-gold classic RoboCop.
It's mostly fun watching the oddball characterizations 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 egotist Perfect Tommy is repeatedly put in his place, or placated with reminders that he is, after all, perfect. When 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.
Arrow Video's Region B Blu-ray of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is the best I've seen this title yet. Arrow added more digital clean-up to the already good master I've seen on the MGM HD cable channel, and I think I see the improvement. Some of those optical composites of motion control ships still have bits of dirt on them. Overall the show looks dandy, and it's of course a big improvement over the existing DVD. Remember of course that Region B Blu-rays won't play on standard U.S. domestic Blu-ray players.
I was also eager to see how Arrow would handle the extras. In late 2001 (not the happiest year) MGM's DVD received a lot of cooperation from Banzai's creators, who were surely pushing for a reboot of their concept. At that time it was only 17 years old; Peter Weller could conceivably return to the role. My producer was handed a standard making-of featurette assignment but found that 'Sherwood Productions' and Fox had thrown away all the promotional video material they had on the picture, including. The director (or writer?) came up with VHS copies of various raw interviews made of the principals in 1984, that had mostly not been used. Meanwhile, my producer located about ten boxes of suspicious outs, in 35mm work print form. These included many cut scenes, in condition so ragged we were unsure they could be used. I spliced them together -- I think it was the last occasion I had to work with 35mm film. Among them was a choice item, however, a fairly clean work print, with completed opticals, of the 'legendary' Buckaroo Banzai origin prologue. It features Jamie Lee Curtis as Buckaroo's mother, and James Saito as her husband. Back at UCLA in 1973, Saito had 'starred' for me in my UCLA film school project one!
The prologue had no audio, but one of the filmmakers came up with a good vintage Clancy Brown recording of the proposed voiceover, that very closely follows an original script that had leaked onto the Internet. My creative input was to synch this narration to the prologue and add projector noise sound effects to make it all seem to be playing in first person. You'll be happy to know that I did not demand credit as an additional editor on the The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. We irresponsible revisers and defilers of beloved cult films must remain in the background, anonymous.
I put the Buckaroo Banzai Declassified featurette together like an old Cannon promo with plenty of cutaways. Instead of using the substandard VHS interviews full-sized, l reduced them flat in the 'scope frame and threw Team Banzai graphics at the problem. Another trick was to put little Banzai logo badges over the time code windows that marred most of the VHS material. As the format already looked funky, it seemed appropriate to throw in a lot of split screens and other nonsense to keep the screen active. Besides including BTS looks at the film's miniatures (with Greg Jein, Savant's old boss in special effects) and the ferocious functioning Jet Car, the extras introduce an important unseen character to the Banzai mythos, Hanoi Xan (pronounced Shan). Of no help whatsoever were the studio lawyers, who decided that sign-offs were needed for everybody seen on screen. So additional shots of effects being filmed had to be dropped. Some great footage of a Sherwood Productions secretary being harassed by a Lectroid in makeup, also could not be used for legal reasons. →
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 an actual historical figure and that their movie is an attempt to popularize a small fraction of his many exploits for the big screen. Mac Rauch and Richter stuck with this conceit, an idea that is amusing at first. To my mind it becomes annoying very quickly, especially when it extends to the commentaries, etc. We tune into the extras looking for information, and some of what we get is just more B.S.. Of course, it's charming when compared to Marvel and DC's efforts to suck impressionable young minds into their commercial empires.
Arrow's new extras give us a Q & A with Peter Weller and John Lithgow moderated by Kevin Smith, filmed at the Lincoln Center. There's also a handsome separate John Lithgow interview in HD. Matt Zoller Seitz offers a visual essay that mostly explains the Banzai setup for newbies. An art gallery is included along with some teaser trailers, for proposed new Banzai adventures, but not the hoped-for battle with the "World Crime League." Arrow's handsome illustrated booklet features an essay by James Oliver.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
"One would think that rights holders would be scrambling to re-ignite the equally rich franchises of heroes like Doc Savage."
Actually, Shane Black IS trying to get a new Doc Savage launched. The failure of John Carter probably doesn't help his chances. The notorious hacked Sony e-mails included references to the project, which as of last year was still in development. -- Gary
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.