If you’re a comic book fan, chances are your first exposure to the medium didn’t come with an issue #1. It was #47 or #83 or #279: something in the middle of a complicated storyline where you had to pick up the threads as you went. “Okay, this person’s girlfriend is dead and they have to face this bad guy, but he actually came at them three issues ago and so-and-so doesn’t have his power back yet and WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!” It was baffling, but also kind of fun, and for some of us it represented a key part of our comic book experience. For obvious reasons it can’t be duplicated in big-screen superheroic adventures… or can it?
Enter Buckaroo Banzai, a movie deliberately tailored to feel like this month’s issue of an ongoing adventure. It really shouldn’t work, but thanks to the knowingly absurd storyline, it feels perfect. Buckaroo (Peter Weller) wears many masks, all of them awesome: brilliant scientist, race car driver, gifted surgeon, rock-and-roll god and freelance thwarter of the forces of evil. When his experiments breach the walls of the 8th Dimension, he earns the attentions of the evil Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow) and his alien minions (all named John for some reason). They’re hell-bent on returning to their home world, and if Buckaroo and his Hong Kong Cavaliers can’t stop them, said home planet will cheerfully trick Earth into destroying itself.
Are you confused? Good, that’s how the movie wants you. Buckaroo Banzai carefully throws out a seemingly endless series of non-sequiturs that could almost make sense if you knew a little more about this world. Why is Jeff Goldblum wearing a cowboy outfit? Why does Christopher Lloyd insist on being called “John Bigbootay” instead of “John Bigbooty?” And why do the good aliens all dress like Jamaicans in disco suits? We never learn the answers, but the film believes they make sense so strongly that we start to believe it too, and in believing, we come to love it.
Its iconoclastic mischief helps strengthen that hand. Director W.D. Richter pulls off the balance between homage and send-up by capturing the spirit of comic-book escapism even as he winks at us over its excess. For those on his wavelength, that over-the-top nudge in the ribs becomes irresistible. You want to see more, and suddenly the mere possibility of ongoing Buckaroo Banzai adventures feels inevitable. We’ll never see them of course (the post-credits promise of a sequel never happened), but it’s enough just to see this movie make reference to them as if they did. Having said that, if you’re not on his wavelength, it simply looks ridiculous, and the ephemeral magic will vanish in a puff of smoke.
Either way, you can’t accuse Weller of not selling it. Few actors in Hollywood history possess a more lethal deadpan than he, and Buckaroo’s utter indifference to the lunacy surrounding him provides a calm rock to which we can cling. That’s part of the movie’s central gag too; if he’s so nonchalant, he must go through this bizarre shit every week, and each time come up with a new and utterly bonkers way to save the world again. The remainder of the cast follows suit, with the exception of Lithgow, whose off-the-chain energy provides an irresistible force to Weller’s immovable object. When they collide, something special happens, though like all cult films it takes a certain mindset to feel its vibe.
And its status as an 80s icon helps cement that vibe even further. We were all too cool for school in 1984, when nothing fazed us and we’d seen it all. Richter knowingly embodies that vibe, and then somehow makes us care about it all anyway. Beneath the snark you feel the way you were when you were six, and cartoonish dangers were as serious as the square-jawed good guys who thwarted them. That mix proves elusive to today’s comic book movies, who for all their creative triumphs still can’t quite reach such levels of self-mockery. That only adds to Buckaroo Banzai’s unique pedigree: a one-film franchise that never was, too daft and marvelous to expand any further.