The Golden Child ★★★

"Those magnificent Americans… So much power and so little understanding what to do with it."

Orientalism was still running wild in the United States in 1986. We were just two years removed from The Karate Kid, Ninja III: The Domination, the Kawasaki Ninja, and even Gremlins. The similarly themed (and decidedly superior) Big Trouble in Little China would be released the same year, as would the cross-cultural car crash that is Gung Ho.

The pulp opening of The Golden Child takes us to Tibet and focuses on the villains in true Doc Savage fashion (said villains led by Charles Dance’s Tyw... er, Sardo Numspa). Eddie Murphy plays hard-boiled Chandler Jarrell, “finder of lost children.” While the film uses a rigid three act structure to move the principals from location to location, set-piece to set-piece, and plot point to plot point, Murphy’s comedic indulgences clash with the obvious inspirations and start to become seriously tiresome by the third act.

Voice actress extraordinaire Marilyn Schreffler voices the naga with a physical performance by Shakti Chen (Unmasking the Idol). She’s hidden for two of her three scenes behind a rice paper curtain and what can be assumed to be a haze of opium smoke. It’s a great character design and threads the needle between mysterious and mythic.

Overall, the film has a crisis of tone with heavy exploitation elements, crass and sleazy, juxtaposed with sillier, more family-friendly moments often earmarked with an irreverent if energetic score. With a Hollywood subculture setting figuring prominently, The Golden Child leverages noir lighting and tropes, especially in the early going, then takes a hard left into Pumaman levels of absurdity on numerous occasions. The very entertaining Charles Dance turns into a questionable special effects monster for the big finish, sadly presaging what has now become a genre staple as seen in Blade (1998), The Mummy Returns (2001), and most recently and egregiously, Wonder Woman (2017).

Slight recommend, but you need to secure your nostalgia goggles. Someday, it may have the dubious benefit of quaintness to help it along like its pulp origins.