As originally conceived, The Golden Child was supposed to be a serious action drama about a Tibetan holy child kidnapped by evil forces who want to use a mystical dagger to sacrifice him to demonic spirits. It was supposed to star Mel Gibson and be directed by John Carpenter. For reasons unknown, Gibson passed on the project, and it went to Eddie Murphy. The script was then rewritten — and mostly improvised — as an action comedy, which was more suited to Eddie Murphy’s style and built in audience. And thus Eddie Murphy became Chandler Jarrell, a detective who specializes in searching for missing children, and who is hired by a mysterious Tibetan woman because he is believed to be The Chosen One. It was an odd choice for Murphy, who truly was The Chosen One at that point in his career. He had just finished three incredibly successful films: 48 Hrs, Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop. What’s particularly interesting about the role, and what makes it almost impossible to imagine The Golden Child as a serious action film, is that Jarrell’s power seems to be his quick wit and sense of humor. He’s not a particularly good fighter, he doesn’t suddenly develop magical abilities, and he manages to save the day through sheer blind stupid luck. Being a smartass is Jarrell’s super power, and during the 1980s, that was Murphy’s bread and butter. To the point you watch The Golden Child not for the terribly wrought and jagged storyline, but rather to see Murphy’s overwhelmingly hilarious performance. It’s that rare Hollywood gem where you get an actor in his prime swooping in on a project and completely dominating it with their performance until their presence outshines anything else in the film.
Everything of note worth mentioning in the eminently quotable film comes out of Murphy’s bravura performance. There are the tattered bones of a story underneath, straw men set up to be set on fire by the comedy styling of Eddie Murphy. Basic gist — a group of strange evil weirdos bully into a Tibetan monastery and kidnap The Golden Child in a strange egg cage. Chandler Jarrell, whose latest case turns up dead with a mysterious dragon tattoo, gets hired by the forces of good to find the missing Golden Child. The cases intersect. The evil forces drained Cheryl of blood in order to try and fool the Golden Child into consuming blood, thus weakening his powers. Which mostly consist of telekinesis and the ability to bring dead animals back to life. The forces of evil, in the form of the quintessential 80’s demonic villain Sardo Numspa (Charles Dance), appear to Jarrell in a dream and offer to exchange the Golden Child for the sacred dagger of Ajante, which is also the only weapon which can kill the Golden Child. Jarrell goes to Tibet, blah blah blah, and there’s a big demonic showdown, whatever.
Which is kind of how the film is shot. Every scene basically seems to be set up to let Eddie Murphy improv something hilarious. You can actually see it in several of the shots. The other actors are genuinely startled and trying not to laugh. This is not poor planning on the part of director Michael Ritchie, who had worked previously with Chevy Chase on Fletch. For all intents and purposes, The Golden Child has a similar premise as Fletch. A mystery is afoot, but mostly this film exists as an excuse for the hero to be hilarious. What makes Chandler Jarrell such an interesting hero is that he isn’t one. He’s a cad, a loud mouth, rule-breaking, smartass. He has to get his ass saved by the girl for most of the movie. Kee Nang (Charlotte Lewis) has to break in and rescue him from the bikers, and she’s the one taking down most of the bad guys when the house gets assaulted. The major fight of the movie against Numspa consists mostly of Jarrell running away, carrying the Tibetan holy child under one arm like luggage, while being pursued by this winged demon. He can’t even finish him off without distractive help from The Golden Child.
Jarrell’s only ability, and the only reason to watch this film, is his disrespectful behavior. He’s easily pissed off, sarcastic, and totally disrespectful. His only seemingly moderate adversary is Victor Wong’s crude old monk. He gives as good as he gets, belching, farting, picking his nose. He doesn’t cotton to Chandler’s bullshit. The famous scene in the monastery is a prime example. Kee spins the talking column and intones for permission to seek the dagger. When the monk demands Jarrell request it, he stands up from the slouched recline on the column, and scratches it like a rap album, grunting, “I said, I-I-I-I want the kniiiiiiife.” Even when the monk calls him on his disrespect, he STILL manages to be a smartass. To get the dagger back to America and through customs past Sardo Numspa, Jarrell uses his quick wit again, and I can’t begin to fathom how the original script worked that scene. It’s entirely through Murphy’s performance that the moment works.
What Murphy did with The Golden Child was to basically recreate his own version of the wise old slave narratives from African-American literary tradition. It’s like Brer Rabbit. He can’t use his fists to beat the bad guys, so he’s going to use his wits. And it works. It’s a bizarre goddamn film, but it totally and completely works for Murphy. He creates a hero, in a mystical action fantasy, that’s able to fight with his mouth and win. But Murphy had the chops in the 1980’s to pull off that kind of role. There aren’t any heroes who fight with just their wits anymore. Nobody’s doing that, and especially not in the black film community. The next actor to take the torch from Murphy was more or less Wesley Snipes in the 1990s, who made roles his own in Demolition Man and Passenger 57 that were totally not intended for a black actor. He kept the lingo and the attitude, but he made it more about the martial arts. Snipes was less concerned about being wise than being sleek and cool. And then the torch is now in Will Smith’s hands, and he’s doing it wrong. Will Smith is a very strong actor, and a very strong comedic actor, but he desperately craves respectability. Will Smith would win an Academy Award if he stopped trying so goddamn hard to win an Academy Award.
Our heroes can be funny, but nobody fights on wits alone anymore. The closest approximation to this is Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow — a performance (that got him an Oscar nomination, Will) — so embodied with rascal nature that it outshines the dumbest of plots. And a strong funny performance can do that. Because the story behind Murphy’s performance is fucking terrible. It cataclysmically erupts in the third act, only held together barely by Murphy’s previous hour’s worth of performance. Strangely, the last film to have a good anti-hero who wasn’t so good with the fighting was Jack Burton in Big Trouble In Little China, which Carpenter made the same year The Golden Child came out. And with many of the same actors. Tommy Tong with the hook swords plays Rain, Mr. Hong is David Lopan, and the shitty little monk is Egg Shen. But even Burton belongs to the Ash Williams school of kick ass and catchphrase, and not the smart smartass. I’d really like to see filmmakers bring back a hero who barely saves the day, but until then, I’ll just keep watching The Golden Child. Hard.