There are movies. And then there are movies that change your entire life. Buckaroo Banzai is the film that changed mine. Why did I just have to be one thing when Buckaroo could be a neurosurgeon, particle physicist, race car driver, rock star and probably the last hope of the human race? “Is, ahh… is somebody… is somebody crying?… out there in the darkness? Somebody crying?”
This is also a film that confounds me — how the fuck did this ever get past the bean counters of Hollywood? It’s an insane proposition — we’re thrust in the middle of Buckaroo’s adventures with the hope that we’ll think it’s awesome that so much has gone on before. For me, it is, but I can only imagine how confused 1984 audiences were watching this.
Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller, RoboCop) and Dr. Hikita have finally created the oscillation overthruster, which allows Buckaroo to drive his jet car through a mountain, then another dimension. A brain is left behind on the bottom the car, though.
News of the jet car reaches Dr. Emilio Lizard (a never better John Lithgow), who invented the overthruster with Hikata way back in 1938…the same year that aliens landed in New Jersey. For real. Are you still with the film? Well, hold on. It’s about to go even crazier.
Buckaroo’s Hong Kong Cavaliers are like the Shadow and Doc Savage’s Fabulous Five, except they’re also great musicians. At a tour date, Buckaroo notices a suicidal woman in the crowd named Penny Priddy (a never hotter Ellen Barkin who imprinted my brain on what girls should look like at a very young age). As he sings to her, she tries to kill herself, which is mistaken for an attempt to Banzai’s life. Yep — every single one of the Cavaliers are packing heat. But Buckaroo insists on bailing her out of jail, even before he discovers that she’s the long-lost sister of his dead wife. Still with the movie?
Man — let me try and sum up what happens next. At a press conference, strange men kidnap Hikata and due to an electrical shock, only Buckaroo sees them for the lizard aliens that they really are. The good aliens, who all look like rastas and have the first name John, show up and explain that they, the Black Lectroids, have been at war with the Red Lectroids for thousands of years. They plan on nuking Earth unless Buckaroo can make sure that the Red Lectroids never get their hands on his invention.
Will Buckaroo save the Earth? Will Penny fall in love with him? Will New Jersey fit in with the rest of the Irregulars and why did he have a whole cowboy outfit with him? Why do they call him Perfect Tommy? Who is Hanoi Xan? Why didn’t Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League ever get made?
This film will leave you with more questions than answers. And that’s good. That’s the way life is and how it should be.
Also — nearly every one of my favorite character actors is in this film — Christoper Lloyd, Dan Hedaya and Vincent Schiavelli all play aliens. Even Yakov Smirnoff shows up as an national security officer.
Fox publicity said of the film, Nobody knew what to do with Buckaroo Banzai. There was no simple way to tell anyone what it was about—I’m not sure anybody knew.” They didn’t even try to advertise the movie, which found its audience, as its specifically a movie made by weirdos who don’t feel the need to explain the joke for weirdos who will explain the joke for themselves. What other movie has references to 19th Century evangelist Dwight L. Moody, Gravity’s Rainbow and song Rocket 88?
Buckaroo taught me the early Zen with which I would try to comprehend this crazy life. And that no matter how much the world wants you to be normal and says you have to excel at just one thing, you can be anything. And then something else, too. Buckaroo said it all in one simple phrase: “Remember, wherever you go, there you are.”
PS – Screenwriter WD Richter would also add many more quotes to the universe via Jack Burton with his work on Big Trouble in Little China two years later.
PSS – Ever wonder what my favorite end credits are?