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It’s time to revisit Buckaroo Banzai in all its insane, infinitely quotable, glory.
Three years before he became everybody’s favorite cyborg in RoboCop, Peter Weller landed the role of his career: the planet-saving, guitar-and-pocket-trumpet-playing, surgical-scalpel-wielding, jet car-driving, inter-dimensional-travelling leader of the world-famous Hong Kong Cavaliers, Buckaroo Banzai.
Calling this movie a little odd is akin to suggesting the sun might be warm-ish. Even its stars didn’t fully comprehend what they were getting themselves into, and Banzai sidekick Pinky Carruthers (in his real-life persona, Billy Vera) has gone on record, saying, “If you say you understood it, you’re a liar.” So why has this movie, which tanked at the box office and went platinum after ten days in release on videotape, become such an icon? Where to begin?
Start with the cast: You’d have to go back to Miles Davis’ second quintet or the 1976 Montreal Canadiens to find a team with this kind of depth and cohesion. John Lithgow plays archvillain Dr. Emilio Lizardo (who is also Lord John Whorfin from the 8th Dimension, but we’ll get to that later). In addition to his outrageous scene chewing (and his outrageous Italian accent), he ingested a fistful of Oreos before each take, so he could give his teeth that Shane MacGowan sheen; that’s commitment. Here he is, exhorting his minions to a triumphant return to the planet from which he (and they) were once exiled.
Jeff Goldblum strikes a spot-on note as neurosurgeon/keyboardist Dr. Sidney Zweibel (a/k/a New Jersey), offering up his geeky, gangly, gawky goofiness in earnest, as opposed to the smarmy and slightly slimy opportunist he played in his breakout role in the previous year’s mega-smash The Big Chill.
Clearly we can’t namecheck everyone, but Ellen Barkin, Robert Ito, and Christopher Lloyd as the love interest, the genius-behind-the-genius, and Red Lectroid villain John Bigbooté respectively, are all note-perfect. And hiding among the casting underbrush lies what just might be the Holy Trinity of “that guy” actors, who work all the time, but almost never in starring roles: Jonathan Banks, Dan Hedaya, and the late, great Vincent Schiavelli. Just Google their pictures: you’ll recognize them all without the slightest hesitation.
But the axis around which this wobbly, wonky, weirdly wonderful plot revolves is Weller himself as Buckaroo Banzai, the man with nerves of steel, an atomic-powered brain, a heart as big as the galaxy, and cool dripping from the hem of his recut Armani suit. Here, he interrupts his band’s set because he senses a disturbance in The Force, and drops a little knowledge on a sad young lady and the rowdy audience unsympathetic to her plight.
In true action-hero style, though, he can morph from Alan Alda to Vin Diesel with catlike alacrity.
And therein lay the problem, at least for the marketing folks at 20th Century Fox, who were tasked with promoting the film. They thought they had an action movie with comedic elements on their hands, while pretty much everyone involved with the film knew it was a comedy with action elements. Imagine, if you can, the look on a mid-level marketeer’s face when confronted with scenes like these (don’t worry; they’re really short).
At the close of the film, a pair of title cards flashed on the screen, whetting the audience’s appetite for more: “Watch for the next adventure of Buckaroo Banzai: BUCKAROO BANZAI AGAINST THE WORLD CRIME LEAGUE.” In the intervening decades, the rights to make the sequel have ping-ponged from company to company—currently they are at MGM—but the director, W.D. Richter, said in an interview in 2013 that he hasn’t given up hope of seeing it on the big- (or maybe small-) screen.
Hope springs eternal. And to paraphrase Buckaroo himself, on behalf of Blue Blaze Irregulars all across the globe, “No matter where it comes from, there I’ll be.”
Despite Fox’s misplaced efforts, a ragtag band of science fiction fans, computer nerds, cyberpunks, and other misfits rallied to the cause, not soon enough to bring the movie box office success, but enough to enshrine it in the annals of geek culture. Examples?
- In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the USS Excelsior’s dedication plaque contains a quote lifted directly from the film: “No matter where you go, there you are.”
- According to director Robert Zemeckis, Back to the Future’s “flux capacitor” was a direct homage to Banzai’s “oscillation overthruster.”
- One episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation finds Captain Picard discovering the Starship Buckaroo Banzai, captained by John Whorfin, on a list of mid-22nd century launches.
- In a recent Dick Tracy comic strip, a representative from the “Emilio Lizardo Crematorium” picks up Abner Kadaver’s remains.
And that’s just a few. For nearly 30 years, it’s been the in crowd’s in-joke.