“Hey Bird – Did you just see a little Hare-Krishna midget in the tree, floatin’?… Or is it me?”
Only in the 80s could a film like The Golden Child be born. And that goes for the comedy it became and the supernatural drama screenwriter Dennis Feldman originally wrote it as with Mel Gibson in the lead and John Carpenter at the helm. Just look at the premise: a young Tibetan child with the power to heal the dead and save our world is kidnapped by a demon, inexplicably brought to LA, and found to be in the close proximity of the Chosen One destined to save him. Add some quintessential retro synth beats while making the hero a wisecracking private detective played by Eddie Murphy—who’s also credited as a producer assisting in its comedic overhaul—and this thing reeks of that infamous decade for better and mostly for worse.
It has some great one-liners and features a brilliantly manic performance from Murphy who hams it up throughout with no shame, but the film itself shows how bad its 1986 counterpart Big Trouble in Little China—which Carpenter left to direct—could have been if it didn’t find the perfect balance of action, humor, and fantasy. Whereas that movie embraces its hybridized genres, The Golden Child seems more interested in mocking them with over-the-top moments highlighting silliness above all. While this hurt it from being anything more than a guilty pleasure curio in my eyes, however, it’s exactly what appeals to so many others. And in the end you cannot discount what my girlfriend said during her pitch to watch: what other 80s Hollywood movie has a black protagonist, non-white love interest, mostly Asian cast, and white villain?
For director Michael Ritchie this is one of the most elaborate productions of a career that spans the likes of The Bad News Bears and Fletch. While he handles himself nicely at the start with a beautifully rendered monastery heist complete with the titular, magical child (J.L. Reate) and an astral projecting Charles Dance as the nefarious Sardo Numspa who teleports himself at will, the special effects slowly devolve into Spawn territory thanks to the limitations of the era. It’s a shame too because the first introduction to Hell that we receive is actually a subtle transition that holds up pretty well after almost thirty years. Unfortunately, our return to the mysticism of winged demons out to destroy the world is much less effective and unavoidably comical in its attempt to frighten.
The best parts from this Murphy-approved vehicle are the ones intentionally meant as fun. There’s his Chandler Jarrell’s guide into the supernatural Kee Nang (Charlotte Lewis) proving herself a formidable fighter who saves the day after being told to wait in the car; the potty-mouthed hilarity of Victor Wong‘s “Old Man” going toe-to-toe with Murphy by constantly pushing the comedian until he fills his elastically expressive face with mock anger; and a hilarious dream sequence/first-encounter between hero and demon complete with live studio audience laughing along. I wonder, though, if maybe too much of the seriousness was retained during the script’s transformation because it still holds a dramatic, end-of-the-world severity that renders these comic interludes overly ridiculous. There are too many tonal shifts to truly gain footing and enjoy the whole above its parts.
What this means is that there’s no real suspense as far as Murphy’s Jarrell’s evolution from missing persons detective and goofball into Chosen One hero. In all honesty, the way Reate’s Golden Child holds himself (the assumption is that the character’s a boy even though he’s played by a girl) makes you wonder if the whole adventure’s an elaborate ruse to afford Chandler the opportunity to grow up since the kid is constantly saving himself from Numspa’s blood-filled oatmeal and cronies hired to watch his cage. He sustains himself by eating tiny little leaves he’d smuggled away with him upon being captured and his powers to personify a Pepsi can into a dancing distraction for simpleton captor Til (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) show he needs only the tiniest of windows to take advantage and turn the tables.
Alas, the child’s only the MacGuffin while Jarrell is our star, so he must remain imprisoned until the two meet and work together to fulfill their destinies. It may belittle much of what happens and in effect stretch the film’s paltry 94-minutes into something seemingly much longer, but it also affords scenes of comedic bliss like Murphy’s quest to retrieve the Goonies-esque Aja-Yee Dagger. As long as Eddie Murphy is onscreen, running his mouth, and proving to all he’s the center of attention, The Golden Child at the very least survives the test of time as a sub-par work with a few great bits. Hell, his handling of Dance’s smug Numspa at the airport upon returning to LA from Nepal is quite possibly one of his best cinematic sequences ever. For that alone it’s at least worth a look.