We first meet our hero, Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller), performing complex brain surgery with a colleague known as
His success catches the attention of Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), a mad scientist who managed to catch a glimpse of the 8th dimension in 1938 and was subsequently possessed by one of its inhabitants, Lord John Whorfin. Naturally, this drove Lizardo stark raving bonkers and he feels nothing but contempt for the human race. For example, he taunts one of the attendants at the mental hospital he is staying at with the memorable line, “Laugh while you can, monkey boy!” This only one of many hilarious bits of dialogue to come out of John Lithgow’s mouth as the actor has a blast chewing up the scenery, complete with an outrageous Italian accent. He inhabits the role of the evil Lizardo with complete conviction. Originally, the studio wanted to cast an unknown actor but the role has been written with Lithgow in mind. He was not sure about the character but director W.D. Richter convinced him by "claiming what a real feast for an actor this wonderful Jekyll and Hyde character was," the actor said. For Lizardo's accent, Lithgow spent time with an Italian tailor at MGM and recorded his voice. He changed his walk to that of an "old crab, and because my alien metabolism is supposed to be messed up". Lithgow said of his character, "playing Lizardo felt like playing the madman in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”
Lizardo escapes the mental institute and hooks up with his fellow alien refugees, the Red Lectroids, who run Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems (a nod to a fictitious company in several Thomas Pynchon novels). To finish off a busy day, Buckaroo and his group of scientists make an appearance at a local nightclub to play a set of music as a Huey Lewis and the News meets Adam Ant-type rock ‘n’ roll band. However, their set is interrupted by a beautiful but distraught woman named Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin). Buckaroo consoles her with one of his many pearls of wisdom, “No matter where you go, there you are.” The next day, Lizardo sends three of his lackeys to steal the overthruster at a press conference held buy Buckaroo so that he can return to the 8th dimension. Buckaroo and his team figure out that the Red Lectroids arrived on Earth on October 31, 1938 in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, which is a sly nod to Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, only in this film it wasn’t a hoax. As if Buckaroo didn’t have enough to worry about, he receives a message from the Black Lectroids (who, incidentally, look like black Rastafarians) from Planet 10 who will trigger World War III if he doesn’t stop Lizardo by sundown.
Richter and writer Earl Mac Rauch met through the Dartmouth College Alumni magazine. Richter had read a review of a book that Mac Rauch had written called Arkansas Adios, then bought and read it. He enjoyed the book so much that he wrote Mac Rauch a letter asking permission to adapt it into a film. Mac Rauch was flattered and agreed. The two men began corresponding and when the writer told him about his interest in becoming a screenwriter, Richter offered him an open-ended invite to visit him in
Years passed and Richter became a successful screenwriter. Mac Rauch took Richter up on his offer and arrived in L.A. Richter proceeded to introduce the writer to producer/director Irwin Winkler who gave Mac Rauch rent money for the next six months. Over several dinners, Mac Rauch told Richter and his wife about a character named Buckaroo Bandy that he was thinking of writing a screenplay about. Richter and his wife liked the idea and paid Mac Rauch $1,500 to develop and write it. According to MacRauch, his script was inspired by "all those out-and-out, press-the-accelerator-to-the-floor, non-stop kung fu movies of the early '70s.” Richter remembers, "Mac's working technique then was sort of improvisational. He would write 30 pages and then give them to us. We'd comment on them, and he'd take them away and so radically alter them no matter what we said that he'd come back with a new storyline, new characters.” Mac Rauch recalled, "It's so easy to start something and then – since you're really not as serious about it as you should be – end up writing half of it ... You shove the hundred pages in a drawer and try to forget about it. Over the years, I started a dozen Buckaroo scripts that ended that way."
Mac Rauch's original 30-page treatment was entitled, Find the Jetcar, Said the President - A Buckaroo Banzai Thriller. Early on, one of the revisions Mac Rauch made was changing Buckaroo's surname from Bandy to Banzai but he wasn't crazy about it. However, Richter convinced him to keep the name. The Hong Kong Cavaliers also appeared in these early drafts, but, according to Richter, "it never really went to a completed script. Mac wrote and wrote but never wrote the end." Another early draft was entitled, The Strange Case of Mr. Cigars, about a huge robot and a box of Hitler’s cigars. Mac Rauch shelved his work for a few years while he wrote
In 1980, Richter talked with producers Frank Marshall and Neil Canton about filming one of his screenplays. Out of this meeting,
and Richter formed their own production company and decided that Buckaroo Banzai would be the first film. Under their supervision, Mac Rauch wrote a 60-page treatment entitled, Lepers from Saturn. They shopped Mac Rauch's treatment around to production executives who were their peers but no one wanted to take on such unusual subject matter by two first-time producers and a first-time director. Canton Canton and Richter contacted veteran producer Sidney Beckerman at MGM/United Artists who had worked with before. Beckerman liked it and introduced Richter and Canton to studio chief David Begelmen. Within 24 hours they had a development deal with the studio. It took Mac Rauch a year and a half to write the final screenplay and during this time, the Lepers from the treatment became Lizards and then Lectroids from Planet 10. Canton
However, a Writers Guild of America strike forced the project to languish in development for more than a year. Begelmen left MGM because several of his projects had performed poorly at the box office. This put all of his future projects, Buckaroo Banzai included, in jeopardy. Begelmen formed Sherwood Productions and exercised a buy-out option with MGM for the Banzai script. He took it to 20th Century Fox who agreed to make it. Mac Rauch ended up writing three more drafts before they had a shooting script.
Buckaroo Banzai features some fantastic casting, like that of the three Red Lectroids that kidnap Penny Priddy and the overthruster. They are played by wonderful character actors Dan Hedaya, Vincent Schiavelli and Christopher Lloyd. They kinda appear to be like aliens with their unconventional looks. They get a nice scene to do their thing while investigating a crashed spacecraft. They run into two hapless hunters and a police officer (who is played by none other than John Ashton, who would go on to have memorable roles in films like Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run). Hedaya, Schiavelli and Lloyd all deliver slightly off-kilter line readings that really sell their otherworldly origins.
The casting of Buckaroo and his team is also excellent with guys like Clancy Brown (in a rare good guy role) and Jeff Goldblum, who gives his trademark eccentric delivery of his lines in a way that only he can. Only has to look at the scene where he figures out the Orson Welles connection to the Red Lectroids to see what he can bring to a film. Richter first met him on Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1979) and wanted him to play
Goldblum makes a good team with Peter Weller, another equally eccentric actor who starred in other cult films like RoboCop (1987) and Naked Lunch (1990). You really believe that he is this famous hero, beloved by many. For the role of Buckaroo Banzai, the studio wanted a recognizable movie star but Richter and
wanted to cast a relatively unknown actor. Richter had been impressed by Weller's performance in Shoot the Moon (1982) and met with him. He was hesitant, at first, to take the role because he was unclear on the overall tone of the movie. "Would it be campy? Would it be a cartoon? Or would it be the sort of wacky, realistic film that would catch people sideways – and not be a cartoon,” Weller remembers. Richter told him Banzai's story and convinced Weller to do the film. The actor says that he based his character on Elia Kazan, Jacques Cousteau, Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Adam Ant. Weller plays Buckaroo with the right amount of laid-back charm and confidence befitting his larger-than-life character and does a great job of selling the film’s oddball dialogue. This goes for the entire cast. There are no knowing winks to the audience as everyone plays their respective roles with conviction. Canton
By the time of filming, Richter had a 300-page book called The Essential Buckaroo that consisted of notes and had every incomplete script Mac Rauch wrote over the years. Principal photography began during the second week of September 1983 on locations in and around
South Gate, an industrial suburb of , with 12-weeks of filming done on the backlot and soundstages at MGM. L.A.
Fox hired Terry Erdmann and a team of publicists to promote the film at Star Trek conventions with a few film clips and free Banzai headbands which have now become highly sought after collector's items by fans of the film. The studio made no attempts to sell the film to a mainstream audience with traditional promotion. Studio publicist Rosemary LaSalmandra said, "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.”
Buckaroo Banzai was originally scheduled to be released on June 8, 1984 but was pushed back to August 15. It opened on 236 screens and faced stiff competition against the likes of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Ghostbusters. It made $620,279 on its opening weekend before finally grossing $6.2 million in North America.
The film was not well-received critically. Dave Kehr, in the Chicago Reader, wrote, "Richter seems to have invented an elaborate mythology for his hero ... but he never bothers to explicate it; the film gives you the mildly annoying sensation of being left out of a not very good private joke." In his review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that Buckaroo Banzai "may well turn out to be a pilot film for other theatrical features, though this one would be hard to top for pure, nutty fun.” Richard Corliss, in his review for Time, wrote, "its creators, Earl Mac Rauch and W.D. Richter, propel their film with such pace and farfetched style that anyone without Ph.D.s in astrophysics and pop culture is likely to get lost in the ganglion of story strands. One wonders if the movie is too ambitious, facetious and hip for its own box-office good.”
Buckaroo Banzai has since attracted a loyal cult following and was quite popular on home video. Richter said, "It has had the most dramatic reactions of anything I've worked on. Some loathe it and others are willing to die for it.” The director feels that the film failed commercially because the narrative was too complex, he would have liked to have had more coverage for certain scenes, he could have edited the film better and there were too many master shots and two-shots that left little for the editor to work with.
Buckaroo Banzai is a marvel of esoteric detail that results in a rich world for its characters to inhabit. The New Wave fashion sense of Buckaroo and his team date the film in a wonderfully nostalgic way that only adds to its quirky charm. The film ends with a title card promising a sequel, entitled Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League. It’s a goof that sadly, never materialized as box office receipts were bad. It’s a shame because the world of Buckaroo Banzai is so interesting and filled with colorful characters that deserve a series of adventures. Fortunately, Buckaroo lives on in comic book form but it would be nice to see another film.