An interesting blend of dark mysticism mixed with Indiana Jones-style adventure, topped with a dash of mid-80s, peak Eddie Murphy action-comedy.
By Review Staff
1986’s The Golden Child was supposed to be the next huge hit for action-comedy star Murphy, who was red hot at the time coming off what would be his biggest film ever, Beverly Hills Cop. (I’m not counting the Shrek films here, which technically grossed more.) It wouldn’t turn out that way, but the film remains an interesting entry in the star’s filmography.
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Present day Los Angeles, 1986. Social worker/cop hybrid Chandler Jarrell (Murphy), a finder of lost children, is told he’s the “chosen one,” recruited to locate and rescue a young boy known as the Golden Child, the “savior of all mankind.” Charlotte Lewis stars as butt-kicking martial artist Kee Nang, who tracks down and recruits Jarrell for the job, Victor Wong as the oriental wise old man (who is also Nang’s father), Charles Dance as Sardo Numspa, the evil demon overlord who has kidnapped the Golden Child, and J.L. Reate as the Golden Child himself.
The movie was directed by Michael Ritchie, known mostly for helming the Chevy Chase Fletch films and 1970s comedies Bad News Bears and Semi-Tough.
Ping-ponging between comedy and action-comedy, Murphy found his groove in 1984 playing the perfect hybrid of comic action man in Beverly Hills Cop. In fact, a quick scan of Murphy’s filmography beginning with his 1982 debut, 48 Hrs., shows a career path featuring an action movie every couple years staggered with more comedic fare (such as 1983’s Trading Places and 1988’s Coming to America.)
After Beverly Hills Cop became a worldwide smash, Murphy and his producers wanted to exploit the “wise ass cop playing loose with the rules and fast with the ladies.”
In fact, Murphy’s releases sandwiched around 1986’s Golden Child are the original Beverly Hills Cop in 1984 and Beverly Hills Cop II in 1987. With Golden Child, we essentially get another dose of Axel Foley, Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop character, in a slightly different setting.
The charm with these movies is seeing Murphy shake up the establishment, seeing him mixed up with a bunch of cads and straight shooters and watching the ensuing antics.
In the Beverly Hills Cop films, we cheer Axel Foley because it’s fun to see him joke his way through crime and murder mysteries alongside “real” cops who “take their jobs seriously,” only to see Murphy’s character come out on top, despite everyone around him thinking he doesn’t belong.
Chandler Jarrell in Golden Child plays in that same world; Murphy’s character is a wise ass, a guy who doesn’t take this stuff seriously, a guy who’d rather invite Kee Nang up to his room for a romp in the sheets and to hell with this saving-the-Golden-Child crap. (Can’t it wait til later?) In the end, like Axel Foley, Jarrell proves to be worthy of all involved, with a heart of gold and personality to boot.
All the familiar Murphy-isms are here, with his goofy, trademark laugh front and center throughout. By now, Murphy and those producing his films knew what worked for him and they were sticking to it. (In one scene, he quickly flashes his ID in front of a group of armed airport officials in Nepal, claiming to be with the “American Stolen Artifacts Foundation,” a throwback Murphy trope we’ve seen in previous movies.)
What sets this film apart is the world Golden Child inhabits, a Los Angeles where magic and the supernatural exist, where evil demons are able to inhabit dreams and roam the earth, despite Jarrell’s early skepticism.
And it’s a whopper of an adventure!
I was 10 when Golden Child was released in theaters on December 12, 1986, but I didn’t see it in the theater, likely catching it via VHS rental in 1987 or ’88. But you couldn’t escape the buzz surrounding this next Murphy adventure with the flood of ads airing on TV and radio and in magazines and newspapers.
The film moves at a decent pace, and it (mostly) doesn’t drag or bore. The adventure is broad, with Jarrell facing adversaries in a number of settings.
And Murphy is funny! Those who don’t think he is are probably not Murphy fans to begin with. Despite having not seen it for decades, I still recalled hilarious bits, like when Jarrell raps like a DJ spinning vinyl while ceremoniously asking for the Ajanti Dagger, a weapon he needs to obtain in exchange for the Golden Child.
Charlotte Lewis, who plays Murphy’s partner in crime, Kee Nang, is solid in the female lead. From my math, Lewis was all of 19 years old here, coming off her debut in Roman Polanski’s Pirates earlier in the year. With Jarrell as the chosen one, Nang is the fighter, which we learn when she begins doing these outrageous back flips and martial arts moves, helping Jarrell out of a couple situations to his surprise. (“How did you do that … with the flip …?” a wide eyed Jarrell asks after seeing her athletic prowess displayed the first time.)
The Wise Old Man character, played by Victor Wong (Big Trouble in Little China, Tremors), adds a comedic partner to the proceedings, guiding a clueless Jarrell to where he needs to go in order to save the Golden Child, and who winds up being more than just an old man to another major character.
J.L Reate is fine as the young boy known as the Golden Child. In reality, the bald child actor is actually an actress, whose real name is Jasmine Reate — an interesting bit of casting that many didn’t know about at the time.
Charles Dance (Alien 3, 2016’s Ghostbusters), as evil Sardo Numspa, is good in the supernatural bad guy role, though I felt like he could have been a little more evil and carried more menace. As scary as he is, he folds a bit too easily during early meetings with Jarrell before going full-on dragon-demon mode in the film’s final act.
In pre-CGI 1986, stop motion effects were used for a couple sequences in the film, notably for the demon version Numspa. Many online commenters like to poke fun at the special effects here, but I’ve always thought stop motion effects had an eerie, scary feel that worked well when rendering non-human bad guys on film. Perhaps growing up in an era when those effects were still being used helped play a part in my fondness for non-computer generated effects. Created by Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic, I find them well done for the time.
Interestingly, The Golden Child was originally to star Mel Gibson in a more serious treatment of the story, but when that fell through Murphy was chosen (pun not intended) and the film was rewritten to cater to his comedic talents, giving us the Beverly Hills Cop-in-a-supernatural-mystery we ultimately got.
Many of the Asian actors in the film (Wong, James Hong, and Peter Kwong) also played roles in Big Trouble in Little China, a similarly themed movie that came out the same year.
In fact, John Carpenter was originally scheduled to direct Golden Child, but dropped out and coincidentally wound up directing Big Trouble in Little China instead. According to reports, the Carpenter film was rushed out in a manner ensuring it beat Golden Child to theaters in 1986. (It was released in June while Golden Child hit theaters in December). Big Trouble would finish 71st in the domestic box office that year with an $11.1M haul compared to Golden Child‘s $79.8M, which was good enough to finish 8th.
While it was a hit financially, the lack of buzz (and box office) compared to Beverly Hills Cop two years earlier helped cement Golden Child‘s reputation as a misfire in Eddie Murphy’s filmography. While Beverly Hills Cop II the following year wasn’t as successful as the first one, it’s box office take still doubled that of The Golden Child, proving that audiences preferred Axel Foley as Murphy’s signature character.
The Golden Child offers an interesting look at how Hollywood shapes and stretches ideas, shoehorning projects into surprising places they weren’t originally meant to be. It’s a fun film for fans of Eddie Murphy and mystical adventure.