To a certain generation, Eddie Murphy is known as the beloved star of of such family extravaganzas such as Shrek, Shrek 2, Shrek The Third and so on (plus The Nutty Professor), but back in the 80’s he was better known for honking that distinctive laugh of his while sticking bananas in tail pipes (not a metaphor) in Beverley Hills Cop or even better, striding into a seedy bar while waving Nick Nolte’s detective shield and declaring himself everyone’s worst nightmare in 48 Hours. Back then, Murphy’s meteoric rise to fame outshone actual meteors and sooner or later someone was going to attempt to harness that white hot charisma for the actor’s first real foray into the realms of the PG-13 rated movie and sure enough, in 1986, the actor appeared in fantasy action comedy The Golden Child but unfortunately the results ended up being more of a 48 karat turd.
Social worker Chandler Jarrell spends most of his days driving around an obnoxiously edited Los Angeles looking for missing children when he’s approached by attractive woman Kee Nang to aid her in finding “the golden child”, a young boy who contains vast mystic powers and who has been kidnapped from his remote monastery in Tibet. Jarrell – being the usual sort of down to earth, wise cracking, street smart guy who can actually pull off wearing a leather kufti hat – scoffs at her claims that he is “the chosen one” but isn’t the sort of guy to let a kid in trouble down, so he follows some leads and tries to locate his young quarry.
However, he soon finds that maybe he should have laid off some of the scoffing when he crosses paths with the villainous Sardo Numspa, an agent of evil who sardonically stalks around in a natty leather coat and who plots to corrupt the Golden Child for his demonic master who sounds suspiciously like Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget (Give it up for Frank Welker everyone!). Matching his wit against Sardu’s distainfully arched eye brows, Chandler has to enter the world of eastern mysticism and (unsuccessfully) check his cynicism – not to mention his motor mouthed wiseassery – at the door if he’s ever going to hope to rescue the child and not get murdered by the misshapen entourage who follows in Numspa’s wake.
Travelling to Tibet in order to obtain a sacred dagger (not to mention stopping by for a quick spot of 80’s casual racism), Chandler finally realises that if he, Kee or the child are going to get out of this mess alive he’d better start taking this world of pot bellied demons and snake women seriously before the chosen one becomes the chosen one and done.
No doubt there are those of out their who hold The Golden Child close to your hearts as an oft-watched childhood favorite and that’s cool, but in the cold light of day there’s no denying that this fantasy is as much as a complete mess as an unswept yak stable. Murphy’s particular brand of humour at the time relied on him being totally unrestrained by the medium he was in which admittedly wasn’t always a good thing (the first fifteen minutes of his stand up show Delerious hasn’t exactly aged like wine), but while the movie’s PG-13 rating left room for some childhood frying images (sacrificial blood hidden in a bowl of oatmeal, child murder), Eddie finds himself with little room to manuever except for being excessively cheeky and saying the word “ass” a lot. That being said, Eddie Murphy at even a quarter strength is still more impressive than most of his peers and while he doubles down on being as smug and cocky as humanly possible, his character is actually refreshingly sweet; after all his job is to find missing children in the broiling cauldron that is an amazingly obnoxious 80’s Los Angeles – but you can’t help but feel he’s ad libbing at least 90% of his dialogue at all times and it shows.
Still, at least he has a good straight man to work off of in the shape of demonic baddie Sardo Numspa and it’s simply impossible to cast Charles Dance as the villain and not have it be awesome but you can’t help but feel bad for female lead Charlotte Lewis who’s character is treated dismally by the script and who has to go through reams of typically sexist crap because the film simply can’t have an ass-kicking female lead show up the hero. One scene that has her rescue Murphy from a gang of Hell’s Angels sees her white shirt unnecessarily sprayed by a broken water pipe in order to show that she’s sans bra and later even has to tolerate a bizarre dream sequence where she’s unfathomably required to be bound and gagged with toilet paper in a questionable scene of bondage for the parents in the audience to hastily explain away by reminding them about that bit where an animated coke can danced to the strains of Putting on the Ritz – even Lewis’ stunt woman is dragged into it, pulling off some taxing, high-kicking, fight scenes in nothing but a pink shirt and a pair of white panties.
Another thing that counts against The Golden Child is that there’s obviously more than a few similarities with John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China aside from both enjoying the presence of actors James Hong, Victor Wong and Peter Kwong. Where Big Trouble dumps it’s brash lead way in over his head into a foreign culture as part of the joke, The Golden Child on the other hand thinks that Eddie Murphy talking trash to literally every person around him while random fantasy shit occurs is all it has to do and as a result the fantasy/comedy divide ends up being as uneven as a crazy paving driveway during an earthquake.
There’s admittedly some funky stuff that sticks in memory; it’s almost painfully 80’s feel (racism and sexism aside) is weirdly reassuring in that warm, throwback kind of way and it’s got a nifty, winged demon creature at the end that’s legitimately threatening (Phil Tippett FTW) even though it’s biggest weakness seems to be concrete and load bearing walls. But overall, Eddie Murphy’s initial big push into family films ends up being an ugly, crass mess that seemed horribly misinformed that we all wanted to see Billy Ray Valentine from Trading Places fight Tibetan monsters just so he can uncomfortably pull an Asian chick.
Less The Golden Child than a golden shower, then…