Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Once Over Twice: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

(1984) Directed by W.D. Richter; Written by Earl Mac Rauch; Starring: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd and Robert Ito;

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: **** ½

“…no matter where you go, there you are.” – Buckaroo Banzai

As a gawky, impressionable teenager, I wanted to be Buckaroo Banzai.  Oddly enough, I still do.  The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension chronicles the storied life of crime fighter, neurosurgeon, rock star, adventurer extraordinaire Buckaroo Banzai* (Peter Weller) and his crack team of misfits, The Hong Kong Cavaliers.  For me, it wasn’t merely entertainment, but a guiding influence on my formative years.  I recall placing this movie in heavy rotation during my video store days, much to the consternation of some of the clientele.  It became a staple, as my co-workers and I traded choice lines from the film.

* Fun fact: Perhaps channeling one of his most famous performances, Peter Weller is a bit of a Renaissance man himself, as an actor, marathon runner, performer in a jazz band (coincidentally with his co-star Goldblum), and professor of Literature and Fine Arts at Syracuse University.

Director W.D Richter commented that the filmmakers originally wanted the title to be Buckaroo Banzai, but the studio felt that the name was too strange, and insisted on The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (aka: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension).  In retrospect, this was just the tip of the iceberg.  When the producers saw Earl Mac Rauch’s script, they wanted a more straightforward action movie, resulting in a constant push-pull struggle with Richter to bring Rauch’s vision to life.  Richter mused that he ultimately won more battles with the producers than he lost, as evidenced by the final results.  In retrospect, the producers (thankfully) never had a chance to get the conventional action movie that they envisioned.


In our initial introduction to Banzai, he’s performing brain surgery*, while fellow doctor New Jersey (Jeff Goldblum) assists.  We don’t have much time to assess his surgical prowess before the action jumps to the desert, and his supersonic jet car.  The car’s test run literally takes a strange turn, as it detours straight through a mountain, thanks to Banzai’s oscillation overthruster.  This invention enables him to cross the boundaries of the 8th dimension, a universe existing parallel to our own.   His achievement catches the attention of the United States government, as well as some residents of the 8th dimension.  Weller handles the role of Banzai with ease, understated and likable, confident, but never arrogant.  

* Banzai glibly warns New Jersey, “…don’t tug on that.  You never know what it might be attached to.”


It’s almost an exercise in futility to describe The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai to someone who hasn’t seen it.  The film plays like the middle part of a trilogy, implying that you have some familiarity with the various characters and their prior exploits.  The labyrinthine plot concerns aliens known as Lectroids from Planet 10 (by way of the 8th dimension), and Dr. Banzai’s efforts to thwart the Red Lectroids, who have waged war against the Black Lectroids.  Earth’s fate lies in the balance, as Banzai looks for a way to stop the evil Red Lectroids’ plans, aided by the Rastafarian-resembling Lectroid, John Parker (Carl Lumbly).  Amidst the chaotic action, however, there’s still time to reignite an old flame, with Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), his deceased wife’s twin sister. 

John Lithgow is especially memorable as the deranged Dr. Emilio Lizardo (a former colleague of Banzai’s father, Professor Hikita), whose body is inhabited by the Red Lectroid leader John Whorfin (one of the running jokes is that all of the Lectroids are named John).  He delivers some of the film’s funniest lines (“Laugh while you can, monkey boy!”), and it’s hard not to smile at his megalomaniacal rants, which were inspired by Benito Mussolini.  He’s flanked by his Lectroid henchmen John Bigboote (Christopher Lloyd), John O’Connor (Vincent Schiavelli), and John Gomez (Dan Hedaya).


The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is peppered with eccentric touches throughout.  These little details, too numerous to catalogue, reward on subsequent viewings and make the film so endearing to many and off-putting to others.  A few highlights include: the fanciful design of the jet car, obviously derived from a common Ford pickup truck; the President (Ronald Lacey), laid up in a hospital room and confined to a rotating bed while contemplating signing a Declaration of War: The Short Form; or a stray line of dialogue referencing a Beach Boys song.  Anyone trying to divine too much sense from the proceedings is missing the point


In the end credits, a sequel, Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League, was promised, but never made.  Over the years, efforts to resurrect the character on the big and small screen, including a proposed television series, ended up going nowhere.  I would love to have seen where the further adventures of Buckaroo Banzai could have taken us, but I suppose we’ll have to resign ourselves to enjoying this one-of-a-kind bit of inspired lunacy.  Is this for everyone?  Nope, and that’s a good thing.  The film’s off-center sensibilities were never designed for mass acceptance, yet The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai managed to find its audience.  I may wonder how it ever got made in the first place, but I’m certainly thankful for it.             

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