Video Rewind is BTS stories from the video store era, one rental at a time! Press play and adjust your tracking for “The Golden Child” (’86).
“Eddie Murphy Is The Chosen One,” announced the poster. A giant Eddie Murphy stood tall in the middle, flanked by the orange glow of Los Angeles and palm trees on the left, and the bluish cold of snow-capped mountains on the right. A large setting sun gave the poster an Eastern sensibility, adding an international flavor to the image as a whole. And then there’s Murphy, the superstar focal point leaning back confidently with his arms crossed (just like the poster for Beverly Hills Cop), one eyebrow raised (just like the poster for Beverly Hills Cop), and that smirk that promised his trademark smart aleck, fast-talking funniness.
Murphy’s new film looked to be a cross between Indiana Jones and Ghostbusters with Axel Foley at the center of the action. The Golden Child looked like the slam dunk, can’t miss, box office juggernaut of 1986.
Murphy started his stand-up comedy career in 1976 and exploded in popularity as a cast member on Saturday Night Live playing such characters as a grown-up Buckwheat, Mr. Robinson, and Gumby. His film career took off in 1982 opposite Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs., gained momentum the following year in Trading Places with Dan Aykroyd, and hit the stratosphere in 1984 when Beverly Hills Cop grossed $226 million (outgrossing Ghostbusters).
Based on that enormous success, Eddie Murphy signed a new contract with Paramount (the studio behind his 3 previous films) in October of 1984.
With 20 projects in development specifically for Murphy, one script stood out from the rest.
Murphy signed on to The Golden Child (turning down a role in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) in June of 1985, calling it, at the time, “the best script I’ve ever read.”
Dennis Feldman had only one writing credit on his resume, the gender swapping teen comedy-romance Just One of the Guys (co-written with Jeff Franklin of Full House fame).
His next screenplay was titled The Rose of Tibet, an adventure-drama in the vein of such hard-boiled, film noir detective films as Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep, but with one difference: The Rose of Tibet would feature a supernatural storyline. With such hits as the Indiana Jones series, Romancing the Stone, Ghostbusters, and Poltergeist, adventure and the supernatural were in high demand in Hollywood, and The Rose of Tibet ignited a bidding war among the studios.
Paramount came away with the script, purchasing it for a reported $330,000, and Mel Gibson was targeted for the lead role.
Gibson ultimately turned the role down to make his own mega-hit, 1987’s Lethal Weapon, and Eddie Murphy enthusiastically signed on to star. With Murphy’s involvement, the script was altered to fit his box office appeal, becoming less of a serious adventure-drama and more of an adventure-comedy. The hard-boiled detective angle was toned down, the action was ramped up, and the supernatural elements remained in place.
Tailored more to the likes of Beverly Hills Cop, The Rose of Tibet, now retitled The Golden Child, was officially an Eddie Murphy movie.
Part of his contract for The Golden Child was that Murphy had director approval.
The first candidate Murphy agreed to meet with was Mad Max director George Miller.
Murphy was a fan of the Mad Max films and the success of those movies bode well for Miller’s chances of winning the job. But rumor has it that Murphy kept Miller waiting for a very long four hours before their planned meeting to discuss the project. Apparently Miller, and rightfully so, felt very disrespected by the lack of professionalism and turned down the job. But a news bit from a 1985 edition of Los Angeles Magazine says otherwise. While George Miller was strongly considered to direct, and Murphy admitted he was an “avowed fan” of Miller’s Mad Max films, the magazine claimed that it was Murphy who decided against Miller for the directing job.
Escape From New York‘s John Carpenter was then offered the job as director, but he found another script to be so “compelling” that he chose it over The Golden Child. That other script was the similarly themed Big Trouble in Little China, the supernatural action-adventure-comedy starring Kurt Russell.
Genre wasn’t the only thing the two films had in common, they also shared three actors (Victor Wong, James Hong, and Peter Kwong), and even some of the same weapon props. The films also shared the same year of release, and Carpenter reportedly cut down on pre-production in order to ensure Big Trouble in Little China debuted in theaters first. Five months would separate the two films, with Big Trouble in Little China being released in July of 1986 and The Golden Child premiering in December.
Another option Paramount had for a potential director was writer Dennis Feldman. Their winning bid on his original Rose of Tibet screenplay was not actually the highest offer, but it presented the option for Feldman to direct the film, so the offer was accepted. The directing deal for Feldman ultimately fell through. Whether that was Murphy’s call or not is unclear (Feldman received a co-producer credit as consolation).
The studio and Murphy eventually chose Michael Ritchie for the job.
Ritchie’s ability to work with children (The Bad News Bears) and his recent success with another Saturday Night Live alum, Chevy Chase in Fletch (which shared mystery-comedy elements with The Golden Child), presumably offered enough credibility to see Ritchie as the man for the job.
Charlotte Lewis was added to the cast as Kee Nang, the woman who recruits Murphy’s character in the search for the Golden Child. Lewis was a model from England discovered by a photographer on a train when she was 15 years old. After getting permission from her mother, the photographer took some pictures of Lewis for a billboard ad campaign which led to her being cast in Roman Polanski’s Pirates. With the lone film credit to her name, it was the casting director from Pirates who recommended Lewis to the Golden Child production.
Out of a reported 500 applicants for the role of Kee Nang, Lewis won the part.
The villain of the film, Sardo Numspa, went to serious British actor Charles Dance. Dance was recognizable to audiences as a Bond villain in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only. His sophisticated accent, tall, slender frame, and icy eyes often had him playing stuffy bureaucrat types or villainous roles. The role of Numspa was no different, but with one added bonus. “I thought I’d quite like to do a film with Eddie Murphy because he makes me laugh,” said Dance, adding, “and I hadn’t done a film like that before.”
As for the Golden Child himself? Six-year-old J.L Reate of Carmel, California won the coveted role. Because the Golden Child was a boy in the film, Jasmine Lauren Reate shaved her head to hide her little girl appearance. The Golden Child would be her only film credit for the rest of her life. Jasmine would have a nice reunion with Eddie Murphy 34 years later at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival while Murphy was promoting Dolemite is My Name. Reate was at the festival as the executive director of events for The Hollywood Reporter at the time.
With the cast in place and production set, filming began on February 18, 1986, on the Paramount sound stages in Los Angeles, with outside scenes filmed around the city.
Murphy plays a detective named Chandler Jarrell who specializes in finding lost children. After seeing him on TV, he is summoned by Kee Nang and dubbed the “Chosen One” who will find the kidnapped Golden Child, a Buddhist mystic with magic abilities who has been kidnapped by an evil sorcerer. Jarrell at first laughs off the mysticism of it all, but soon finds out further evidence of dark magic as he investigates.
To increase authenticity for the scenes in Tibet, a second unit team did filming in Nepal, but the actors filmed at Mammoth Mountain ski area in Mammoth Lakes, California as a substitute for the Himalayan Mountains.
“It’s an enormously complex picture,” director Michael Ritchie said. “That’s what attracted me to the script because it is many kinds of movies all rolled into one.”
Ritchie hinted early on in production that the script was ever-changing because of Murphy’s involvement. “The cement really is Eddie. So I try to set up situations and antagonists that he can play off of in an amusing and smart aleck kind of way. Eddie’s involvement made the script, which was not written with any particular comedy, much funnier.” In their approach, Murphy and Ritchie were on the same page.
“I’m a comedian first and foremost,” Murphy said. “I don’t become the character in the film…if [audiences] come to see the picture, I’m Eddie Murphy in the film.”
It’s clear that Paramount viewed Eddie Murphy not only as their Chosen One, but also their Golden Child.
A teaser trailer was released in the summer of 1986 that featured Eddie Murphy in a snowstorm riding on a yak (long-haired cattle found in the Tibetan Plateau). Through a windy, snow-flurry blizzard, Murphy yells, “If I’m the Chosen One, how come I’m freezing while you’re sitting in a warm movie theater? Chosen One, my behind! Why couldn’t someone choose me to go to the Bahamas?”
Because post-production was behind schedule no footage from The Golden Child was featured in the teaser, and no footage from the teaser exists today on the internet. However, one Reddit user does recall seeing the teaser that summer before a screening of Aliens.
The Golden Child begins with a quick-cut sequence of Los Angeles sights and establishments with a funky, contemporary synthesizer score playing over the opening credits. Meanwhile, Murphy walks the streets in a man-about-town fashion, hanging posters for a missing child. Murphy may be in the serious business of finding lost children, but director Michael Ritchie is letting the audience know right away that they are in familiar territory with the superstar funnyman, playing up the Los Angeles connection to Beverly Hills Cop.
There are some jarring edits early on in the film that awkwardly cut off the humor.
In one scene, while Murphy’s Jarrell is being told by Kee Nang that he is the Chosen One to find the Golden Child, Jarrell is joking away inferring she needs psychiatric help. “And such a cute girl, too,” he says to her as he turns to get back to his basketball game. “Dope fiend,” Jarrell adds through a frozen smile. It’s the type of little moment that only Murphy can turn into a bigger laugh than it deserves, such is his charisma and comic ability. The film then cuts to a close up of a murdered young girl.
When the Golden Child astrally projects himself from Tibet to outside Jarrell’s window in an effort to let him know that Jarrell is, in fact, the Chosen One, Murphy injects the script with more of his disbelieving humor.
As the projection fades, he asks a bird in the tree, “Hey, bird, did you just see a little Hare Krishna midget in a tree, floating? Or is it me?” When the phone rings behind him, Murphy quips, “That must be Rod Serling.”
The Murphy-isms continue when Kee introduces Jarrell to Doctor Hong and Kala, an expert on mysticism and a half dragon-half woman. After Kala, who remains behind a screen, explains that Jarrell must save the Golden Child, she asks if he has any questions. “Yeah,” says Jarrell, “What are you doing this weekend because your silhouette is kickin.” To this Kala lets out an annoyed, rattling hiss. “She plays the maracas too,” Jarrell asks with a big, impressed smile.
There’s a goofy dream sequence where the villain Numspa gives Jarrell an ultimatum: If Jarrell can offer him a magic dagger with the ability to kill the Golden Child called the Ajanti Dagger, Numspa will hand over the kidnapped boy. This whole sequence is rather silly, a scene clearly added to the script to bolster the comedy in the film. But it feels out of place and just plain cartoonish. While Murphy has his usual funny lines throughout the scene, the happenings around him aren’t worthy of his participation.
Regardless of its shortcomings, the dream sequence pushes the plot forward and Kee Nang and Chandler Jarrell are now off to Tibet to seek out the Ajanti Dagger. Once there, Jarrell must successfully navigate riddle-like obstacles to acquire the dagger, and Murphy provides some of the funniest moments in the film. His sarcastic declaration of “I want the knife,” and tossing a coin down an alleged bottomless cavern and listening for it to hit the bottom, only to yell, “There’s no bottom,” with the poutiness of a child are hysterical.
It’s easy to see Murphy was given plenty of free reign to improvise, and the results are often laugh-out-loud funny.
Laugh out loud funny for Murphy that is. The film around him seems to be a bit of a mess.
Kee and Jarrell return to America and eventually meet up with the demon and the fiery battle to save the Golden Child (and Earth) is on. As Numspa transforms into the demon, a state-of-the-art special effects technique was used. Developed by Bill Tondreau at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, the technique had the ability to control live action by storing camera movements on a server back at the IL&M facility. It could then be endlessly repeated as visual effects are built into the scene (one scene, in particular, the visual effects team had some extra fun with was the dancing Pepsi can; corny but impressive).
Visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston said the technique was in the testing phase for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but was so successful the production decided to utilize it in The Golden Child to make the demon’s movements more life-like. There were two demon puppets used in the film, one being a life-sized demon and one that was about 18 inches tall (the scene with the demon chasing Murphy in the car is the life-sized one). In the film, the demon is subservient to the Dark Lord, voiced by Frank Welker in the film and known to kids of the 1980s as the voice of Dr. Claw, the villain in the cartoon Inspector Gadget (“Next time, Gadget, next tiiiiime!”)
In the end, Kee Nang, the Golden Child, and Jarrell have their ride off into the sunset moment as they walk towards the now saved city of Los Angeles.
A romance seems to have blossomed between Jarrell and Kee, and surely with hopes of a sequel the three discuss returning the Golden Child to Tibet. Given his magic abilities, Jarrell suggests the Child go on Star Search, the popular 1980s talent competition show hosted by Ed McMahon. “Do they have Star Search in Tibet,” asks Jarrell, to which he answers, “No, they probably have Food Search.”
At the sound of Murphy’s famous laugh, the end credits roll.
Post-production on The Golden Child focused mainly on making the picture more of an “Eddie Murphy” movie.
Because of this, the production experienced several lengthy, and costly, delays.
Producer Robert Wachs told The Los Angeles Times that “a handful” of scenes were re-shot to add more humor to the film in an effort to highlight its superstar lead (and to appease audience expectation). Talking to Fangoria, Charles Dance was very candid about how post-production altered the original film.
“Initially, The Golden Child was a very interesting script with a lot of resonances, but Paramount basically chickened out.” Dance added, “It was a very different sort of film for Eddie Murphy…[but]…Paramount took too much notice of the preview audience’s unease about the unfamiliarity of Eddie’s character.”
Dance also said that the original score was “sumptuous, weird and beautiful,” only to be replaced in the end with “something more funky.”
Dance then concluded by stating what is blatantly obvious while watching The Golden Child: “basically what you got was Beverly Hills Cop in Tibet.”
Adding to the ever growing workload of post-production on The Golden Child was the score for the film.
Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future) was originally offered the job but turned it down. Academy Award winner John Barry (Out of Africa) was then hired to compose but ultimately left the production when Wachs reported that, according to test audiences, the score “did not move the picture along,” (according to Charles Dance, John Williams also provided a score that was rejected).
The producers then brought in Golden Globe nominee Michel Colombier (White Nights) to provide the final score. The result is more of synth-pop sound more in line with the instantly recognizable Axel F from Beverly Hills Cop. While Colombier got the sole music credit, some of Barry’s score is still heard in the film.
Not only were scenes re-shot with Murphy and multiple attempts at a score, but Wachs also told The Los Angeles Times that special effects for the film were only finished “just days” before the December 11 premiere. Ken Ralston said scrambling to complete the work through the new visual effects technique was “like initiation by fire.”
“We were still doing our tests up here while we were shooting our plates down there in L.A., and it was a race to get everything set. We had our fingers crossed all the time.”
As late as December 3, news reports swirled that the film was still not finished, a mere 8 days before its world premiere.
Rumors were flying fast and furious about unfinished special effects and an incomplete soundtrack. The Los Angeles Times even pointed out that the premiere of The Golden Child was taking place in New York City and not the usual (and more accepted) Hollywood. With little positive buzz and word on the street of a “Golden Turkey,” The Golden Child was Murphy’s first film that had a red carpet world premiere. The biggest stars of the day showed up at the event including Dustin Hoffman, Sophia Loren, Tom Cruise, and Sylvester Stallone.
Released in December 1986, The Golden Child was a box office success.
It opened at number one with $11.5 million, almost doubling the other new release (Three Amigos!) in the number two spot.
The Golden Child stayed at number one for 5 weeks, followed closely by Star Trek IV in second place until The Golden Child slipped to number three in week six, while Star Trek stayed put at number two. The film would prove Eddie Murphy’s popularity by surviving mostly negative reviews and earning $79 million in the United States, more than tripling its $25 million budget, to rank as the eighth biggest film of the year.
Despite its box office success, The Golden Child failed to meet Paramount’s expectations by not coming close to the $226 million grossed by Beverly Hills Cop.
The film marked the first critical flop and first step back at the box office for Murphy, but the critical lashing didn’t distract the superstar. “You know who my critics are? The audience. They came out and spent $70 million to see The Golden Child.”
Maybe so, but Murphy did protect himself going forward by being more involved in the writing of his next five films, and not completely relying on others to craft the stories for him. Lesson learned.
Released on VHS in late July of 1987, The Golden Child debuted at #11, peaked at #1, and went on to spend 10 weeks in the top 15 of the VHS rental charts. Just as in theaters, The Golden Child was a hit on home video.
Still, Leonard Maltin asked the question, “It was a box-office hit, but have you ever met anyone who actually liked it?”
Maltin’s observation isn’t unfounded.
The movie continuously meanders to connect plot points, explain muddled rules, and impress with rushed special effects, so much so that Eddie Murphy almost gets lost among the chaos. Almost.
“My pictures make their money back,” Murphy remarked in 1989. “No matter how I feel, for instance, about The Golden Child, which was a piece of shit, the movie made more than $100 million [worldwide]. So who am I to say it sucks?”
Someone who did say it sucks, more or less, was screenwriter David Feldman.
Lamenting over the loss of his original action-adventure-detective film, Feldman said, “Everybody wanted to make an Eddie Murphy comedy. I think that wasn’t what Eddie should have done, and it’s not what the director should have done—and he didn’t even do it that well, either. It was a nightmare.”
Charles Dance didn’t care for the final product either, but he did say he enjoyed improvising and acting with Murphy.
More so than the film not being received well critically, Murphy was upset at the idea of being put in a box and inhibiting his artistic freedom.
“I wanted to do something different…and I didn’t get any credit for that. It’s like I was being told I shouldn’t try to do different things.”
Critic Roger Ebert did notice. In a positive review, referring to the nobleness of Murphy’s character, Ebert wrote, “It shows a side of his comic persona that I don’t think has been much appreciated: his essential underlying sweetness. Murphy’s comedy [in the film] is not based on hurt and aggression, but on affection and an understanding that comes from seeing right through the other characters.”
That “underlying sweetness” that Ebert noticed in Murphy manifested itself in real life regarding co-star Charlotte Lewis.
After The Golden Child, Lewis indulged herself and blew through her $150 thousand paycheck leaving her virtually broke in London. Lewis explains in a 1999 interview with News of the World what happened next during a phone call with Eddie Murphy:
“He told me I had to go back to Los Angeles and restart my career. He sent me a one-way first-class plane ticket to LA, had a car meet me and take me to an apartment he’d rented for me. I was instructed to go to a local bank where I found an account opened for me with 50,000 dollars in it.”
Lewis then emphasized that her and Murphy had never had a romantic relationship of any kind. “It was just a generous Eddie Murphy gesture.”
The Golden Child is a prime example of a studio altering and twisting a film in an impossible attempt to both meet audience expectation of a superstar’s ability (in this case Murphy), as well as top previous box office of said superstar’s last project.
It’s an outcome that can’t be concocted by dozens of people chipping in thoughts and ideas here and there, checking off items on a long list of an imaginary formula.
The script for The Golden Child need not have been altered by anyone but Murphy himself. Any attempt to have the script match or keep up with Murphy’s comedic ability is bound to fail, and distractedly so (watch the goofy dream sequence and listen for out-of-place cartoon sound effects for proof of this).
Gene Siskal put it best when he said, “Don’t give this man a script. Just let him talk to us, to anybody. And keep him away from special effects. He is one all by himself.”
It’s that observation that makes THE GOLDEN CHILD still worth watching. Murphy’s wattage was so bright in his prime that even a script as messy as THE GOLDEN CHILD couldn’t dim it.
The film moves fast, but not because of its 93-minute run time, but because we’re hanging on Murphy’s every word, knowing a joke can come at any second. And the jokes come fast and furious, with Murphy excelling as a man who needs a sarcastic, whip-smart running commentary to mask the fact that he is in way over his head. But in a fantasy-action-adventure shrouded in mysticism and supernatural elements with demons, a Golden Child, and a half dragon lady, who wouldn’t be in over their head?
With all of those story elements to keep track of, it’s apparent the studio and filmmakers definitely were.
Even so, The Golden Child deserves to be remembered, because, in the world of 1980’s comedy, Eddie Murphy is The Chosen One.