The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension

Certificate: 12
Running time: 103 mins
Director: W.D. Richter
Starring: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum
Genre: Sci-Fi, Action
Country: USA

If you’ve ever watched The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension you might be wondering where this review will start as it’s a valid question…where do you start with Buckaroo Banzai?  The comforting truth is that it doesn’t really matter where you start you always end up with the same WTF conclusion.  Buckaroo Banzai (Weller) is of an American mother and a Japanese father (both scientists) and when he’s not in surgery (I forgot to mention he’s a surgeon) or playing with his band The Hong Kong Cavaliers (he’s also in a band I forgot to mention that too) he’s either driving his jet car (that's not a typo) or fighting off alien invaders (I forgot to mention he’s also a martial arts expert).  Banzai and his team have been working on a device that will allow them to travel through solid matter and it’s an early trial and breakthrough with this device that leads a band of trapped fascist aliens to them thus putting the future of the planet in jeopardy.

It’s at this point that readers will probably be split into two camps, the first camp with be solid 'WTF is going on?!' enthusiasts and the second will have the thousand yard stare as they experienced a Buckaroo Banzai flashback to the 1980’s and a part of their brain which closed itself off after primary school science class.

Safe to say that it’s no spoiler alert to point out at this point that the film is beyond absurd, it goes as far as to make Doug McClure’s At the Earth’s Core look like a level headed scientific exploration of the green planet.  The soundtrack and costuming is almost too 80’s to function, the synthesiser is working overtime, the suit jacket sleeves are up passed the elbows and everyone comes with their own mullet.  Peter Weller (Robo Cop, 24) has many things going for him but being half Japanese or at least looking remotely passable as half Japanese is not one of them.  He’s as American as apple pie and as western as Robert Mitchum.  He does, however and thankfully, play the role with all it’s absurdities perfectly straight and you can very much see that he’s enjoying playing the James Bond / Doogie Howser / MTV generation mashup for all it’s worth.  He somehow sells you on some of the more ridiculous aspects of the script and some of the more hilarious dialogue is mastered when he's on the clock.  Other than Robert Ito, who’s amazing and always worth watching regardless of what he’s in, Lewis Smith is suitably perfect as Perfect Tommy while Jeff Goldblum (as New Jersey) in full cowboy attire is worth watching for how increasingly awkward he is in bright red shirt and Stetson.  Aside from Weller the best value performances comes from Clancy Brown (as Rawhide).  He’s assured, contained avoids the knowing gestures off camera that Ellen Barkin is criminal of.  He actually makes you care about his character which is saying something in the 8th Dimension.  It kills me to point out how terrible John Lithgow is in the film, double helpings of ham are fine you’re allowed to enjoy your work but his accent is refined and bottled essence of awfulness.  So bad that you begin to get caught up in the OTTness of it all and begin to laugh at him.  I love Lithgow…this saddens me.  Adding insult to injury Dan Hedaya and Christopher Lloyd are character footnotes and underused.

All the problems with the film actually manage to lead to a degree of salvation.  The naming of all the aliens with John [Insert stupid name here] like John Bigbootee or John Small Berries gets more than one childish laugh as the absurd hysteria takes over, similarly the fact that the no entry sign has seemingly been penned by a Lolcat highlights just how serious those involved wanted the film to be, or should it be films as they had intended in making Buckaroo Banzai a franchise.  People love this film, the amount of good will out there for The Honk Kong Cavaliers is amazing but you can’t help but think it’s born out of how much fun people had laughing at the film rather than with it which might have been the intent as Dave Kehr's review at the time said that "the film gave you the mildly annoying sensation of being left out of a not very good private joke".  The truth of the matter is, and I’m sorry to be the one who has to break it, but it’s not very good…at all.  This is not to say that it’s not entertaining in it’s own way, it is.  You will easily pass the 103 minutes but it won’t have done anything for you.  Some of my favourite films are absurd, my love of John Waters and my secret love for both Weekend at Bernies films will illuminate that but the problem with Buckaroo Banzai is that there was too much of the surreal going on, enough even for a few films and without something to actually ground the film and the narrative it all just felt like it was a story spilling out of the mind of a hyperactive child with ADD.  Desperate Living is the perfect example of how to ground the fantastic against the realm of the mundane and down beat.  The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension doesn't have any of the realism required to focus the audience which is a shame as the one time it attempted this was not only impressive but also rather intelligent.  The use of the 1939 Orson Welles radio broadcast is clever, tangible but unfortunately not enough.

Buckaroo Banzai is an incredibly visual film and to it's credit is one that could be enjoyed without an sound, in a VJ environment and it should be given credit for being an incredible visual experience in a time of cinema were, technologically, it was on the verge of a major renovation.  Sadly the whole is a lot less than the sum of it's parts.


Chip Lary said...

I've got to disagree with you on this one. I like demented and this movie delivers in spades. Is it a great movie? No, but it's better than a single star to me. (I gave it 3 out of 5 in my review:

I did acknowledge in my review that people who watch it may end up wondering why the hell other people like it.

John Baxter said...

I usually love these kind of films, my biggest problem is that it hints at so much but refuses to even spill one word of exposition and it just feels like it's a film that keeps you at arms length rather than allow you close enough to see the flaws. It was a tough call as visually I loved parts of it but I couldn't help but feel left outside in the cold as the film went on without me.

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