Yes, this is another one of my commentaries on things that annoy me in second-rate movies of the past. I was reminded of this one in a round about way. I was watching 'The Shadow' (1994), which I enjoy as an action movie with nice 1930s styling, somewhat reminiscent of the first three Indiana Jones movies and with a superhero who is a reformed drugs dealer with simply mental powers battling a resurrected Genghis Khan in 1930s New York. It was one of those movies in which, following on the success of the gothic-styled 'Batman' series of movies, 1989-97 other superheroes from old comic books were sought to hopefully turn into successes. Other examples were 'Dick Tracy' (1990) stunning in terms of the style and imagery but rather dull; 'The Phantom' (1996) which was pretty poor all round and 'The Rocketeer' (1991) which was enjoyable, not least because it was an archetype of dieselpunk. These had a 1930s-40s setting which I guess appealed more to the older members of the audience rather than the average teenager; perhaps to zenith of this trend was 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow' (2004). More successful were superhero movies set in the contemporary world, notably the three 'Spiderman' movies, 2002-7 and the newly revised 'Batman' series 2005-8, though I found them dull. Less successful were 'Daredevil' (2003), 'Hulk' (2003) and 'The Incredible Hulk' (2008) and 'Superman Returns' (2006), but not outright failures.
Anyway, what is the connection between 'The Shadow' and 'The Golden Child'? Well, it is Tibet. At the start of 'The Shadow' Larmont Cranston is an American (played by Alec Baldwin) who has managed to establish himself as drugs baron in Tibet, living a classically debauched and violent life until called to book by a local Buddhist lama. Redeeming himself and learning how to manipulate the thoughts of others he returns to New York to fight crime in the classic superhero way. In 'The Golden Child', Eddie Murphy plays Chandler Jarrell (all male American names now seem to consist of two surnames from somewhere else) a kind of self-funded searcher for lost children in Los Angeles. He is employed by a Tibetan woman, Kee Nang (played by Charlotte Lewis) to search for the so-called Golden Child who is also being sought by a demon, Sardo Numspa (played by Charles Dance). The movie is an awkward mix of fantasy and Murphy's gritty humour, toned down for a 'family' movie. Jarrell encounters a Chinese woman who is half-dragon and Numspa travels to Hell to commune, we assume, with the Devil, in a scene reminiscent of the portrayal of Hell and travel to and from it in 'Constantine' (2005).
Jarrell ultimately travels to Tibet and through a series of tests, partly motivated by lust for the woman who recruited him, he is deemed worthy by the Buddhist monks to track down the Golden Child. The child has magical abilities, able to subsist on single leaves and to animate a tin can into being a dancing toy. We are reminded of the way that on the death of the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist monks would go into the community to find a child who would be seen as the next incarnation, something he would prove by selecting particular items when presented with a choice. Led by the demon Numspa the kidnappers seem to have stepped from the 15th century, armed with a crossbow.
Despite coming between the very successful 'Beverly Hills Cop' (1984) and 'Beverly Hills Cop 2' (1987), 'The Golden Child' really began to establish Murphy's career in making rather lame movies that did not know which genre they fitted in and tried to shoehorn Murphy's loud mouthed humour into them. After 1989/90, Murphy has been best simply voicing the donkey in the Shrek movies, (2001, 2004, 2007), though I quite enjoyed 'Vampire in Brooklyn' (1995) on a cheesy level and 'Bowfinger' (1999) was a real exception to the rule for both him and Steve Martin. It also marked a step on Charles Dance's woeful Hollywood career. Dance, like Tim Piggott-Smith, Art Malik and Geraldine James came out of the incredible success of 'The Jewel in the Crown' (1984) television series, though unfortunately none of them really was able to live up to the expectations raised at that time. All four have appeared in very dodgy stuff, but I always feel very sad for Dance. The roles he had seem to be set on humiliating him not only as an actor but as a person. 'The Golden Child' is probably the least worst of these, he brings gravitas and the right sinister level to playing a demon manifested as man. However, it is painful to think of his role in 'Last Action Hero' (1993) and especially the utterly humiliating part at the end of 'Ali G Indahouse' (2003). To some degree this has forced him to stick to classic upper class Englishmen and we have not seen the spread of characters that might have come in the wake of his role in 'Aliens 3' (1992). He is great in 'Michael Collins' (1996) and is a stalwart of many British television series.
Anyway, back to 'The Golden Child' and why it riles me so much. It is not that it is a rather confused movie or that a lot of things with Eddie Murphy in are not worth the entrance ticket price, it is the ending. Having gone through all the trials to prove himself and to defeat a demon, Jarrell rescues the Golden Child. The last scene is with him walking with Jarrell and Nang dressed as an American boy. He is wearing a baseball cap and Jarrell tells him to ignore the children in the playground who tease him about having a shaven head (his head is shaven like the Buddhist monks who he grew up with) because it would soon grow back. This ending is not a happy ending, it shows that the Devil is more adept than we might think. The Golden Child has not been restored to his rightful place as a religious leader, he is being forcibly enculturated into American consumerist culture, so far removed from the values of the Tibetan Buddhist monastic culture he came from.
Clearly the movie makers (director Michael Ritchie; writier Dennis Feldman) see their culture as the only 'right' one that all children would love to be part of and would thrive in. Ultimately Jarrell is as much a kidnapper of the child as Numspa was; he corrupts him as much as Numspa would have sought to have done, and is actually more successful at it. You feel that the US audience would be blind to what is so wrong about this ending. However, as I have noted before US movies are compelled to follow very set paths in terms of narrative in order to make them acceptable to this core audience. This culture is so supreme that so many people cannot even step outside it to reflect on movies properly or accept ones that do not follow these paths precisely. I know it is only a trashy comedy-adventure movie, but it irritates me and nags at me whenever I am reminded of it. This blog is my way of getting such things at least a little out of my system.