The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai at8d
The new branded line Shout Selects chooses Buckaroo for special-special edition treatment, with a long making-of docu just like the ones from the heyday of DVD. And this oddest of oddball sci-fi pictures has a backstory worth documenting.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
1984 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 102 min. / Street Date August 16, 2016 / 34.93
Starring: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, Lewis Smith, Rosalind Cash, Robert Ito, Pepe Serna, Ronald Lacey, Matt Clark, Clancy Brown, Carl Lumbly, Vincent Schiavelli, Dan Hedaya, Bill Henderson, Damon Hines, Billy Vera
Cinematography Fred J. Koenekamp
Production Designer J. Michael Riva
Art Direction Richard Carter, Stephen Dane
Film Editor George Bowers, Richard Marks
Original Music Michael Boddicker
Written by Earl Mac Rauch
Produced by Sidney Beckerman, Neil Canton, W.D. Richter
Directed by W.D. Richter
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Not content with its already well appointed special Blu-ray editions, Shout! Factory is inaugurating a new Shout Select branded line with the intent of turning out an even more refined series of disc offerings with ‘special’ special extras. W.D. Richter’s quasi-cult title The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai has been out in a number of editions, and a Blu-ray was released last year in Region B. This two-disc set brings it back to our shores with a new documentary and audio commentary.
Back in 1984 Buckaroo Banzai was a hip offering clearly aiming at cult status. Writers W.D. Richter and producers Sidney Beckerman and Neil Canton were hoping to launch a game-changing, ever-broadening super-franchise, going so far as to write a number of sequels into all of the talent contracts. The success of Indiana Jones suggested that in a few years they could be cashing checks from a mountain of sequels, tie-ins and ancillary toy merchandising. That has to beat bashing one’s brains out screen-writin’ for The Man.
Nobody denies that attempting to emulate George Lucas was a smart move. The ‘extended universe’ pulp franchise of Marvel superheroes has dominated action filmmaking for ten years now. The Banzai cult is small but still enthusiastic, so I think we need to chalk up his one screen outing as a success. Thirty-two years later, its impressive roster of up ‘n’ coming actors commands attention in itself.
With its mash-up of Doc Savage, The Lone Ranger and a rock ‘n’ roll superstar, Buckaroo Banzai was a box office flopparoo back in 1984. Purposely confusing and sometimes laboring too hard to be off-the-wall flippant, the show nevertheless shapes up as a fun adventure something like 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, a fan base still exists for the animated buddy ensembles in Hanna-Barbera’s Jonny Quest, not to mention their Top Cat. That Buckaroo didn’t snag the gold ring may just have been a matter of timing.
Need a rundown on the dilemma faced by Buckaroo in his one and only screen adventure? 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 that 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 his stalwart colleagues 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 can be depended upon to respond to the brand of male camaraderie being proffered by the Cavaliers. It’s the kind of love of ‘the corps’ that 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 message. 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.
Buckaroo Banzai could perhaps be better, but it’s often successful in its aims. Remember, the decade following Star Wars brought forth wannabe camp epics that fell flat on their faces, fantasy rubbish like The Ice Pirates. 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. Discovered crying in a cabaret audience, Penny Priddy is invited into the clan as if her arrival had been foretold by an oracle. Even the manic, expressionist Emilio Lizardo is played without irony, 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 of an edge into his line delivery to have fun with his role without condescension. His Buckaroo is also sufficiently vulnerable to be interesting as a hero. The Cavaliers are nicely orchestrated personalities with varying combinations of the cool and the klunky. Actors like Pepe Serna and Clancy Brown are sufficiently 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, all subordinated to 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 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 inventing franchise worlds from the ground up, Banzai gets a solid A-minus.
As icing on the cake, the show’s imaginative special effects overcome a fairly tiny budget. Interesting spaceships look like giant flying seashells, as if they were grown, not constructed. A handful of VFX 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 money 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 really sub-par elements in Buckaroo Banzai are its action scenes and some of the settings. Altogether too much of the film takes place in generic locations like derelict factories, with endless games of gun tag being played in nondescript corridors and hallways. The movie also seems shortchanged for rough stuff. It 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 fun watching the oddball characterizations bounce off one another, and the self-conscious cornball factor is a big plus. Little 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 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, high technology, guns, and rock music. One can imagine the producers sweating when screenings were greeted with smiles and chuckles instead of belly laughs and applause. Fox was just distributing, and didn’t have enough at stake to commit to a film that didn’t fit into a convenient genre pigeonhole. Word of mouth was good but this isn’t the kind of crowd-pleaser that studios understand, then or now.
Shout Select’s Blu-ray of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is the same very good transfer we saw from Region B a year ago: bright, colorful and perhaps a little cleaner than the straight DVD transfer. The 5.1 audio improves the fast, dense dialogue and beefs up Michael Boddicker’s music score.
The real desirability factor comes with disc producer Brian Ward’s feature length making-of docu, Beyond the 8th Dimension, which gathers a great many of the surviving cast and crew members, 32 years down the line. The best thing about the show it that it is not the tongue-in-cheek extras package assembled in 2001, that pretended that Buckaroo Banzai was an actual person and that director Richter’s film is a pseudo-doc recreating a few of his greatest adventures. This time around Richter, his producer, actors and other creatives tell us how the show got launched and the problems it encountered on release. We get great explanations from the art and design crew and effects people as to how effects were done. Much of it is news to me, and I had some contact with it as it was happening.
The very long docu does have sections in which the participants waste time praising the show and each other, networking via the added value forum. But it’s great to finally get the full story on the show — and to see how the actors have aged. Peter Weller, Christopher Lloyd and John Lithgow participate, but not Ellen Barkin or Jeff Goldblum.
The other new item is a commentary by Denise and Mike Okuda, artists and experts known for their contribution to Star Trek movies and authors of a number of books about the same series. They also have done design work for NASA. Their track is an informed scene-by-scene linear analysis, offering a wealth of information on everything we see.
The other commentary and the contents of the second disc are holdovers from the older DVD release from late 2001. The ‘Buckaroo is real’ approach taken by Richter and Earl MacRauch is carried through the commentary and the 22 minute featurette, and it gets rather old seeing the director artfully insist that he’s just a faithful scribe documenting Banzai’s illustrious career. I was the video editor on these Standard-def extras. All of the original publicity materials had been thrown away, so the featurette Buckaroo Banzai Declassified had to be cobbled together from surviving VHS tapes (with time code windows) that the director had saved. The VHS interviews were reduced to fit the ‘scope frame to minimize their lack of quality. The time code windows were hidden with little Banzai logo badges. As the results looked interesting/funky, it seemed appropriate to throw in a lot of split screens and other nonsense to keep the frame active. The only new footage was W.D. Richter’s performance as himself, giving the alternate universe version of the Buckaroo Story. We also see BTS looks at the film’s miniatures (with Greg Jein, Savant’s old boss in special effects) and the ferocious functioning Jet Car.
My disc producer on the old special edition is noted for finding lost and misplaced film, and this time he located the ‘lost’ prologue to Buckaroo Banzai. Among a number of cut scenes in 35mm work print form was a fairly clean work print, with completed opticals, of the entire origin prologue. The rediscovered print had no soundtrack. I cut in a vintage Clancy Brown recording of the proposed voiceover that had been saved by the director, and added projector noise sound effects to suggest a home movie context. The ‘restored’ prologue ended up being a major discovery for fans. It features Jamie Lee Curtis as Buckaroo’s mother and James Saito as her husband. Yet another personal connection: back at UCLA in 1973, Saito had ‘starred’ for me in my UCLA film school Project One!
For me, the main draw for this new presentation is Brian Ward’s bright new documentary. I’m glad that the movie has received such a substantial revisit, with key-source interviews; too many featurettes and ‘docus’ for genre pictures are now researched from Wikipedia and thrown together with clips swiped from trailers. I’ll be looking to see what other worthy titles are given the Shout Select treatment by Shout! Factory.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Blu-ray
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Blu-ray: Multi-part documentary Into the 8th Dimension with new interviews; audio commentary with W.D. Richter and Earl MacRauch; audio commentary with Denise and Michael Okuda. DVD: Featurette Buckaroo Banzai Declassified, deleted scenes, alternated deleted prologue (reconstituted), trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD in keep case in card sleeve.
Reviewed: August 1, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson