What a remarkable act of bravery it was, to unleash this movie onto an unsuspecting world. Buckaroo Banzai represents a big-budget experiment, a test to see if the Reagan Era was ready for something so unabashedly kooky, so willfully geeky. The filmmakers even double down by attaching an end title that promises more just like it. Alas, this spaced-out epic was destined to spiral and settle down to the ground, like a doomed paper airplane. Unsurprisingly, Buckaroo Banzai would eventually crawl from the Lazarus Pit of home video to become an all-time cult flick. It will never bask in the same nerd glory as Star Wars or Mad Max, but Buckaroo and his crew have slowly gained a shaggy form of enduring respect.
The plot of this film is so firmly entrenched in left field, it almost defies any rational description. I’ll do what I can: It’s the near-future, probably. Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is a studly Renaissance man who swaps out vocations like he’s Max Fischer in Rushmore. In successive scenes, Buckaroo performs brain surgery, sets a land-speed record in a jet car, shreds a few guitar licks in a punk-pop band, and acts as an intergalactic sleuth in the face of an alien invasion. These aliens all look humanoid, except they’re all played by oddball character actors (Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedaya, and Vincent Schiavelli), and their faces look like a cross between a Tusken raider and a French baguette.
Anyway, Buckaroo deploys his band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, as his very own Memphis Mafia: They kick ass, take names, and generally have a great time riding Mr. Banzai’s coattails.(Their ranks include some very familiar faces, including Jeff Goldblum and Clancy Brown.) At one of their gigs, Buckaroo meets Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), a lonely soul newly nestled on the bottom of the barrel. Our hero senses something special about this broken woman, but…what could it be?
Meanwhile, Buckaroo’s meticulous investigation points to the deadly machinations of the Red Lectroids, those pig-faced Panera Bread aliens who want to plunge us all into WWIII. The meatball sub creatures are led by Dr. Lizardo (John Lithgow), a wild-eyed maniac who seeks to travel across the dimensions of space and time. Or, something like that.
This was my first time to see Buckaroo Banzai, and it just didn’t grab me. I know, I know. It’s embarrassing for me, too. And I’m aware that this film has millions of fans who host watch parties and quote it endlessly. They don’t need my respect to carry on their little Buckaroo fan clubs, but they have it anyway. I think because I missed this film as a wee lad–when my nerdiness was in full flower–I just see it differently now. Part of me wishes I could go back and screen Buckaroo Banzai for little ten-year-old Toddy, and this review would be totally different. Unfortunately, that can never be.
Of course, don’t let my wet towel ruin your day at the beach. Buckaroo Banzai is a cute little relic of the 80s, and a full-fledged attempt to introduce goofy cinema to a mainstream audience. It’s got high production values, plus you can peep tons of famous people when they were barely shaving. (Except for Clancy Brown–that there’s a man’s beard.) If you’re looking for off-path cult movies, this is definitely one to see.
103 min. PG.