Wherever you go, well… There you are.
Some characters only really work in the time period they were originally created in. Take Doc Savage, for instance: the genius-millionaire-inventor-science adventurer really only works when placed in the 1920’s and 30’s - that period of time where science and technology was rapidly evolving, but not so much as to rob the world of its basic mystery; take him out and transplant him to the modern day, and the character feels antiquated and out-of-date. The only way to bring Doc Savage successfully into any other time period is to completely change the character from the ground up, building off of the basic renaissance man persona… Which is precisely what the makers of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension do for their wacky, instantly memorable movie. Buckaroo Banzai and his Hong Kong Cavaliers owe a great deal to classic pulp adventuring for sure, but were also thoroughly modern - or, at least they were in 1984. Buckaroo Banzai himself now looks hokey and way out of date, with his rolled-up sleeve suit and funky pop-synth rock band. But just like Doc Savage, the character still has his own kind of charm; at the very least as a pop artifact of the era in which he was spawned.
W.D. Richter makes his directorial debut here, which sees the titular Banzai fighting against the alien rebels the Red Lectroids from Planet 10. Buckaroo Banzai is a busy dude - the opening sequence alone sees him late for a test piloting mission due to his performing delicate neurosurgery. Banzai successfully completes both the surgery and the pilot-test of his Jetcar, which sent him rocketing into - you guessed it - the 8th dimension. Watching all of this transpire through his television set is Dr. Emilio Lizardo, who once attempted the same experiment years earlier and was possessed by Lord John Worfin, leader of the Red Lectroids who was imprisoned in the 8th Dimension for crimes against his kind. Lizardo hunts down his fellow Lectroids and proceeds to make life difficult for Buckaroo, who already has his plate full with the depressive Penny Priddy, who also happens to be the forgotten twin sister of his lost love. Sound confusing? You don’t know the half of it…
Playing such an all-consuming role like Buckaroo Banzai would be a daunting task for any actor, so it’s fitting that the all-consuming talents of Peter Weller were utilized. Weller severely underplays almost every scene he’s in, wisely figuring that the general zaniness of the movie didn’t need further embellishment. Weller keeps his cool as a character who is simultaneously a martial arts expert, physicist, neurosurgeon and rock n’ roll heartthrob, all the while finding little touches to show off Banzai’s humanity and compassion. John Lithgow gets one of those roles he was born to play as Dr. Lizardo, going wonderfully OTT with his shock of red hair and overblown Italian accent. Ellen Barkin also acquits herself well into a role that requires a lot but explains little - as Penny Priddy, Barkin goes from suicidal to sexpot to captive to at least three other tropes, which results in a rather schizophrenic character. Still, it fits within the film, which is so jam-packed with different elements and details it becomes quite overwhelming.
Apparently, screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch started so many versions of the screenplay that Richter eventually compiled them all together for a production bible of the entire world of the film. Although clearly thought-out, sometimes the film feels packed with details that just don’t get enough time to breath. Consider the Hong Kong Cavaliers, Buckaroo’s rock band who are equally trained for science and adventure as their leader, who never really get proper introductions - when glean details here and there about each, but it’s a struggle to remember their names after only one viewing. I was particularly fond of Clancy Brown’s Rawhide, who’s sort of Buckaroo’s second-in-command, and the new recruit Dr. Sydney Zwiebel/New Jersey, mainly because he’s Jeff Goldblum. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg in regards to Buckaroo’s hired help: there’s also the Blue Blaze Irregulars, the Radar Rangers, the Rug Suckers, and probably a few more I’m forgetting.
This constant barrage of plot elements in another movie might feel like contrivances to move the story along, but here feel like just another part of Buckaroo’s wild and crazy world - it also doesn’t hurt that the filmmakers are also sending up genre and pulp tropes, if only slightly. It all threatens get a bit tiring when the climax rolls around and the Rastafarian Black Lectroids decide that maybe the best way to control their Red rebellious brothers is by bombing Russia and kick-starting all-out nuclear warfare to destroy the planet Earth, but Weller and the rest of the cast see the film through; ensuring that however wildly the plot spins out of control, there’s always a human element at stake for us to care about.
The ending also promises a sequel - Buckaroo Banzai vs. The World Crime League - but like most movies that end with the promise of a sequel, it never came to pass. A shame, as the world Rauch and Richter created here was ripe for further exploration, which their first film only barely scratches the surface of. But with continuing adventures or not, Buckaroo Banzai still finds his way into the pantheon of cult heroes.