Release Date(s)1984 (August 16, 2016)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox/MGM (Shout! Factory/Shout Select)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
“Laugh-a while you can, monkey boy!”
Buckaroo Banzai is one of those films that simply shouldn’t exist… and yet it does, and it’s bizarrely, wonderfully perfect, in a 1980s B-movie kind of way.
Its story opens as the infamous Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is preparing to test his suped-up, high-powered Jet Car (but not before consulting on an intricate brain surgery – Buck’s a man of many talents). Buckaroo climbs into the cockpit of the car and installs a strange device, an Oscillation Overthruster. When the car finally blasts down range, something appears to go wrong; it careens off the test track and heads straight for a mountain. But just as it looks as if Buckaroo’s about to bite it, he suddenly engages the Overthruster and the car blasts through the mountain and into the mysterious 8th Dimension before returning safely. News of this scientific breakthrough is quick to spread, and it soon reaches the maniacal Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), who’s been confined to a mental hospital in New Jersey since one of his experiments went horribly wrong years ago and drove him crazy. It turns out, however, that he isn’t really crazy... just possessed by the spirit of an alien Red Lectoid named Lord John Whorfin. Whorfin wants to free his Evil Red Lectoid comrades, who are trapped in the 8th Dimension, and he needs Buckaroo’s Overthruster to do it. So with his loyal henchmen John Bigboote (Christopher Lloyd) and John Gomez (Dan Hedaya), he sets out to steal the Overthruster and destroy Buckaroo in the process. But Buckaroo never stands alone – he’s got the hard-rockin’, atom-crackin’ Hong Kong Cavaliers at his side. And if things get desperate, he can always call upon his worldwide network of Blue Blazer Regulars... when they’re not busy fighting the World Crime League, of course.
I first caught Buckaroo Banzai during its theatrical run back in the 80s, and its off-kilter brand of absurd-yet-straight-laced humor hit me right square between the eyes. As a fan of both Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Monty Python, I took to it immediately. One of the delightful things about this film is that every character seems to have his or her own internal emotional life and plenty of personal stuff going on. There are so many subtle layers of performance happening in the background that you can really only appreciate them all through repeated viewings. That’s partly because Lithgow and Lloyd steal scene after scene with their gleefully over-the-top performances. Peter Weller plays the title character with a wonderfully weird and steady confidence, part Einstein and part Adam Ant. Other cast highlights include Jeff Goldblum as New Jersey (in a role that very much hints at his later appearances in ID4 and Jurassic Park) and a very young Ellen Barkin as Penny Priddy, Buckaroo’s hair-teased femme fatale. Really the whole supporting cast delivers, no matter how small their part.
Still, enjoy it though I do, Buckaroo Banzai is not a perfect film. For one thing, it’s not well-paced. It fails to build its laughs into something greater (and mind you, there are some very funny throw away gags here). It also doesn’t build much in the way of dramatic tension. This is definitely a film best suited to its cult audience. But these are small complaints. In the end, I suspect you’ll likely either really love Buckaroo Banzai… or just not get it at all.
For those of you who do love it, a Region A Blu-ray has been far too long in coming. Arrow Video released a nice Region B edition in the U.K. last year, and Koch Media released a merely adequate Region B disc in Germany in 2013. Fortunately, Shout! Factory is finally delivering the film to U.S. audiences in a new Region A Blu-ray edition that’s well worth the wait, the inaugural title in their new Shout Select line.
This 2-disc set includes the film and some all-new extras on Disc One, which is a Blu-ray. To my eyes, this appears to include a relatively new high-definition transfer of the film from the original elements, probably the same one that was used for the Arrow BD in 2015 but with a little bit more digital remastering. The film looks terrific, with abundant detail and excellent contrast. Colors are nicely saturated and accurate, and I suspect that a new color-timing pass has been done for this release, because the palette looks just a little bit more natural here than on the Arrow release. The original English audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio format in both 5.1 and 2.0 options. Both are quite good, though occasionally there are lines of dialogue in the 5.1 that get a little lost – not a problem of the mix but rather the way the sound was originally recorded. There are also times when Lithgow’s dialogue is hard to make out simply because he’s muttering to himself in his strange alien-Italian accent. (This was an issue on the original MGM DVD release back in 2001 as well.) Fortunately, the optional English subtitles are always available when you need them.
In terms of bonus material, the Blu-ray includes the legacy audio commentary with director W.D. Richter and writer Earl Mac Rauch, as well as a fine new commentary with our friends Michael and Denise Okuda, who began their Hollywood careers as super-fans of the film and who provide a ton of great trivia and production anecdotes. But of course, the highlight of this release is a new feature-length documentary called Into the 8th Dimension (128:16). Produced by Shout!’s Brian Ward, it’s broken into 8 parts: The Origin, The Cast, Making the Movie, Design Elements, Visual Effects, Post Production, The Release, and Beyond Banzai. Nearly everyone you’d want to hear from about this film is included here. Among the new interviews are W.D. Richter (director), Neil Canton (producer), Clancy Brown (Rawhide), Carl Lumbly (John Parker), Peter Weller (Buckaroo Banzai), Bari Dreiband-Burman & Tom Burman (make-up and alien designers), Peter Kuran (effects supervisor), Pepe Serna (Reno Nevada), John Lithgow (Lord John Whorfin), Christopher Lloyd (John Bigboote), Billy Vera (Pinky Carruthers), Michael Boddicker (composer), Michael Fink (VFX supervisor), Lewis Smith (Perfect Tommy), Damon Hines (Scooter Lindley), Gerald Petersen (Rug Sucker), Linda DeScenna (set decorator), Eddie Marks (costume supervisor), Aggie Rodgers (costume designer), Hoyt Yeatman (motion control), and Richard Marks (co-editor). The documentary is surprisingly candid about the difficulty the filmmakers had in working with executive producer Sydney Beckerman, who would arbitrarily make strange decisions or demands of the production, as well as then MGM studio president David Begelman. The latter actually fired the film’s original DP during the production – none other than Jordan Cronenweth (of Blade Runner fame) – replacing him with Fred Koenekamp (whose previous work included Patton). The change explains why some scenes in the film are highly stylistic, while others have a too-bright comic book feel. The documentary delivers many good behind-the-scenes stories, among them: Richter describes how he cast Lithgow after seeing him in Rich Kids, reveals that the film’s cast walk ending (in the L.A. River basin) was shot to Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl, and definitively answers the ultimate fan question: “Why is the watermelon there?” This is good stuff and makes for great viewing.
Disc Two of the set is a DVD that includes most of the legacy standard-definition bonus features (from the original 2001 DVD). Among these are the Buckaroo Banzai Declassified featurette (22:41), the Alternate Opening with Jamie Lee Curtis (7:12), all 14 of the Deleted Scenes (approx. 15 minutes in all), the Foundation Imaging Jet Car Concept trailer (2:25), and the film’s original theatrical trailer (1:17). I should note that you’ll probably still want to keep that original DVD if you wish to retain all of the legacy extras – not carried over here are the Pinky Carruther’s Unknown Facts subtitle trivia track, the Banzai Radio interview with Terry Erdmann, the image galleries, the Easter eggs, the “Nuon” features (anyone remember those?), and the Banzai Institute Archives. This set also (obviously) doesn’t include the unique features produced by Arrow U.K. for their Region-B Blu-ray release, among them a gallery, the textless Closing Sequence, the Visual Essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, the Lincoln Center Q&A, and the Lord John and Tao of Buckaroo interview featurettes (so super-fans will probably wish to keep that disc too). Finally, Shout’s packaging includes reversable cover artwork.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is classic, genre-busting gem. It’s whip-smart and imaginative, and its charms greatly outweigh its flaws. Even if you aren’t a fan, the sheer amount of talent on display in this film makes it well worth a watch. And if you love Banzai as I do, Shout’s new Blu-ray is absolutely a must-have addition to your movie library. Trust me, the new documentary and commentary are a real treat. Highly recommended!
- Bill Hunt