You ever have one of those days where you have a difficult surgery to perform in the morning, fight off an evil alien invasion in the afternoon, and then rock out, performing an exhaustive concert playing guitar for your rock and roll band that night? Not to mention having to deal with a suicidal woman who may or may not be the twin sister (or at least the doppelganger) of your deceased wife? No? Well, how about having to drive an experimental car with a mechanism you designed that lets you travel through solid matter, chase down the demented colleague of your scientist father who recently escaped from a mental ward, all while trying to deal with an alien shock treatment that allows you to see evil aliens who are posing as humans? Still, no? Well, you’re not Buckaroo Banzai.
This hodgepodge mess is what is the basis for one of my absolute favorite movies, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. The movie itself requires an extraordinary suspension of disbelief, as well as an ability to adapt to whatever the screen throws at you. For one thing, the movie starts off as if it in the middle of an ongoing series of movies, sometimes chucking stuff at you as if you’d been watching one of those Saturday morning serials from the 50’s, and you should already know what has been going on before this episode.
Not to worry, though, because if you have the ability to go along with it as it progresses, you won’t be entirely lost….at least not if you watch it more than once. I have to admit, when I saw this movie the first time I was probably as confused as you’ll probably be after one viewing. But that’s part of the fun of the film. It’s a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
This ain’t Casablanca in other words.
The script was the brainchild of a guy named Earl Mac Rauch. According to Wikipedia, Rauch and his friend, screenwriter W. D. Richter carried on a correspondence in the early 70’s leading to Rauch going out to Hollywood. Rauch told Richter some details about a character he had in mind, which was the genesis for what eventually became Buckaroo Banzai. Richter encouraged Rauch to write a movie script about him. Supposedly Rauch would get 30-40 pages into a script, then leave it unfinished, while starting a new script. Now that I know this, ABB becomes all the more reasonable as a “coherent” script. At least it explains a lot of the mishmash feel to the movie.
Buckaroo Banzai is a sort of cross between Doc Savage and Doctor Who, with a little bit of Dr. Strangelove and a dash or two of Doctor Demento. With that many doctors in the mix, it’s bound to get a little rocky.
The movie was what is probably considered a “bomb” by Hollywood standards. It only made back about ½ of its budget in original box office receipts. But it has achieved a cult status among its fans, myself included. It is one of the 101 Cult Movies You Must See Before You Die (ed. by Steven Jay Schneider) a book I regard as a movie bible on my bookshelf. Cult flicks by definition are those which may or may not have been huge blockbusters, but undeniably have a fanatical base of acolytes who spout an endless list of raves about what a great movie it is. Which is exactly what I am going to do here
There is a brief introduction to the early life of Buckaroo to begin this movie. It is explained that Buckaroo was given that name because his father, a Japanese-American scientist and his mother, an American scientist were big fans of movie westerns. Lost footage that was not in the theatrical release and was probably originally commandeered by Hanoi Xan, helps explains things. (Who’s Hanoi Xan? Your guess is as good as mine.) Buckaroo’s father and mother, both scientists were doing some experimental stuff in the 50’s and were killed in a freak “accident” that was later revealed to have been the work of Hanoi Xan. (There’s that name again…)
The original docudrama (docudrama? I thought this was just a movie. Yeah, well, you just keep telling yourself that…) begins with a group of politicians and scientists waiting for the arrival of Dr. Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) to arrive for the test drive of his experimental jet car. But Buckaroo is deeply involved helping a fellow surgeon Dr. Sidney Zweibel (Jeff Goldblum) perform some experimental surgery on an Eskimo. After the surgery, Buckaroo offers Sidney a position on his team, providing he can sing.
The scene then transfers to the jet car test site, where Buckaroo drives the jet car, succeeding in getting it up to phenomenal speeds. The computer readout in the control room lets you know that the car is geared up for what comes next because the gizmo that does the work is “sined”, “seeled” and “delivered”. (There are lots of little gags like that and things placed in the film that are inside jokes and the like. Even now, after having watched it dozens of times I’m still seeing things for the first time in it). Buckaroo goes off course, unexpectedly to everyone in the control room expect his team of scientists. He heads directly into a mountain and disappears through solid rock.
Mountain? What mountain?
This is done through a device called an oscillation overthruster. While the control room goes ape, Buckaroo is seeing lots of strange things inside the mountain, until he comes through on the other side. After his success he gets out of the car and looks over his car and finds an odd looking living organism attached to the undercarriage.
The news reporters light up the airwaves with the earth shattering news and it is observed by Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), an inmate in the ward for the criminally insane. He hears the name of Dr. Hikita (Robert Ito) and hooks himself up with a contraption that serves to give us a flashback to when he and Hikita were co-workers trying to develop an early experimental version of an oscillation overthruster.
Flashbacks done the hard way
Almost immediately after hearing the news, Lizardo, who insists his real name is Lord John Whorfin, kills his prison guard and escapes the prison. He makes a call to someone named John Bigbooté to tell him of the news that Hikita has succeeded in inventing the overthruster and they can now make plans to go “home”.
Back on the sane side of the universe, Buckaroo’s crack team of scientists, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, consisting of Perfect Tommy (Lewis Smith), Rawhide (Clancy Brown), Reno Nevada from Memphis (Pepe Serna), Pinky Carruthers (Billy Vera) and the newest member Dr. Sidney who has adopted the name “New Jersey”, are doing some research on the item that Buckaroo pulled off his jet car, while preparing to go on stage as Buckaroo’s rock band.
Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers
The scientists, you see are also accomplished musicians, called, appropriately enough, Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers. They rush on stage to a packed house and leap into their first set, but midway into it, Buckaroo stops and claims he hears crying. The crying it turns out belongs to a mysterious blonde (Ellen Barkin), who somehow made it through the front door wearing a negligee. She attempts to commit suicide, but her arm is bumped and in the confusion she is thought to have been trying to kill Buckaroo and is arrested.
All dressed up and nowhere to go
Buckaroo goes into a funk, because the blonde, Penny Priddy by name, is apparently the unknown twin sister of Peggy, Buckaroo’s dead wife. Peggy had been killed in a previous episode of the serial by a bomb set by Hanoi Xan. (There’s that damn name again. Who the hell is he???) Buckaroo does not believe the story that she was trying to kill him and has her released. She accompanies him and his cadre to a press conference called to discuss the recent jet car event. But during the conference Buckaroo gets called to the phone where the “President is calling”. It’s not the President, its a group of Black Lectroids who zap him from the phone booth, the result of which allows him to see the evil Red Lectroids as they really are, not in their human guises.
Red Lectroids from Planet 10!
See Black Lectroids are the good guys and Red Lectroids, of which John Whorfin/Lizardo is one, are the bad guys. The Black Lectroids want to prevent Whorfin and his fellow Red Lectroids from returning to Planet 10, where they would be a danger to the populace of Planet 10. The Black Lectroids are not, however, from the same planet and mindset of Superman, and they don’t have humanity’s best interests in mind. The Black Lectroids threaten to fire a particle beam on Russia and cause a nuclear war on Earth if that’s what it takes to prevent Whorfin from getting off the planet.
Lord John Whorfin has his own cadre of helpers trying to help him steal Buckaroo’s overthruster, including the aforementioned John Bigbooté (Christopher Lloyd), John O’Connor (Vincent Schiavelli), John Gomez (Dan Hedaya), John Yaya (James Rosin), and several more who are not seen onscreen, like John Small Berries, John Parrot and John Nolan. They all work at Yoyodyne Industries which has a big contract with the US for defense. They also all applied for Social Security cards on the same day, 11/01/1938 in Grover’s Mill, NJ. (Grover’s Mill, in case you don’t know the history, was the site of the “War of the Worlds”, the supposed invasion of Mars from Orson Welles famous radio show broadcast, which happened October 31, 1938.)
Buckaroo has a fan base all over the world to call on, called the Blue Blaze Irregulars, citizens who, like Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars, can be called on to help as a citizen’s brigade. These guys including Scooter Lindley (Damon Hines), a little boy whose code name is “Junior Blue Blaze Irregular #41 ½”. Together they form a full scale commando team that has to deal not only with Red Lectroids rampaging over the countryside, but also the kidnapping of Penny and the capture of Buckaroo. The Hong Kong Cavaliers swing into action to do their best to save the day and prevent the President from having to fill out the Declaration of War (the Short Form).
The easy way to start a war
Good Lord, if that doesn’t interest you enough to go buy this movie right now, perhaps you’d be better off with The Sound of Music. This has been a fun review to write and I thank Christina and her cohorts for giving me the opportunity. No charge this time, girls. I just wish the promised sequel at the end of the movie “Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League” had been made. “The World Crime League”, BTW, is Hanoi Xan’s outfit. (Hanoi Xan again? Gah!)
Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films. This post originally ran in 2017 but is being reprinted as this week’s Throwback Thursday article.