ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘Barb Wire’ (1996), Part One
Chris Sims: Hello everyone, and welcome back to our in-depth review series of movies based on the independent superheroes of the '90s! Today, we're heading back to 1996 for Pamela Anderson's starring role in an action movie, and I just want to confess this right up front: When I was a teen, I definitely had a Barb Wire poster on my bedroom door.
Matt Wilson: I would have maybe done the same, but there's just nothing alluring to me about the name "Barb." I know it's a pun and all, but I can't think of anything other than great aunts when I hear it.Chris: With me, I honestly think it was less about Pamela Anderson and more about the principle of the thing. I mean, TV and movies had informed me that, as a teenage boy, I should have posters of girls and cars up on my walls, and since I knew Barb Wire was also a comic, I figured it fit my interests enough. I also had a poster of a Plymouth Prowler, which should give you an idea of what kind of cool teen I was.
Matt: The PT Cruiser of sports cars! It's usually here that we talk about some of the backgrounds of the movies we watch. For this one, I'll state a few facts: This is the only one of these films that has been on Netflix Watch Instantly, which is a good thing because I refuse to pay to see it. Netflix predicts I will give it exactly one star. It's also the lowest-rated of the '90s movies we've seen on IMDb: 3.1.
Chris: There is a good reason for that: It is Not Very Good.
Matt: More proof of that: This movie was so bad, it killed the comic that inspired it.
Chris: A comic that I've never read. It always seemed to me like Barb Wire was one of the B-level entries in the '90s Bad Girl phase, in which thousands of people were convinced that Lady Death was something with which they should concern themselves, but that's literally judging a book by its cover. Who knows, Barb Wire the comic might be great. Did you ever read it?
Matt: I did not, but most of the run was written by John Arcudi, which isn't a bad pedigree. Unlike this movie, which was directed by David Hogan, a guy who doesn't even warrant his own Wikipedia page. His biggest accomplishment, apparently, is a bunch of Dave Matthews Band videos.
Chris: So was it his bright idea to remake Casablanca as a post-apocalyptic action movie starring Pamela Anderson, or do we have screenwriters Chuck Pfarrer and Ilene Chaiken to blame for that?
Matt: As far as I can tell, that hasn't been documented, and why would it need to be? There's a seed of the story in the comics, though, which do take place in a war-torn town, and in which Barb does own a bar called Hammerhead.
Chris: To be honest, there's not much out there about the background of the movie, but what there is, you can probably already guess: At the time, Anderson was incredibly famous thanks to the magic combination of Baywatch and nudity, and I imagine movie stardom seemed like the next logical step. Despite Judge Dredd and Tank Girl's failures at the box office, comics were still a pretty fertile ground for adaptation, and since The Mask had been so successful, Dark Horse properties had a better record than most. Thus: Barb Wire, and that's as close as I think I can get to justifying anything we're about to see.
Matt: That and, according to IMDb, "studio pressure for more nudity," which doesn't really jibe with The Mask's track record, but fits in with Anderson's previous oeuvre.
Chris: Unfortunately, our review can't even promise nudity. Well, it can, since I always strip down before writing, but... you know, maybe it's best to just move on to the movie itself.
Matt: I'm wearing extra clothes to make up the difference. But yes, let's.
Chris: Our story begins in the near future of 2017, during the Second American Civil War, which we know because the producers are kind enough to give us an opening crawl and narration summing everything up for our convenience. We're also told that Steel Harbor is "the last Free City," whatever the hell that means.
Chris: Incidentally, in case you wandered in late, Barb Wire herself will give us this exact same information after the opening sequence. Can't decide whether to do a crawl or have your main character do a voiceover? Do both!
Matt: What's extra crazy is the VO guy and Anderson both sound like they're about to fall asleep when they talk about it. I guess when you've experienced an apocalypse, it's just all so dull.
Chris: That's a good rationalization, since Anderson will seem like she's on the verge of naptime for the entire film.
Matt: The very first actual scene, the one that plays over the credits, is Anderson dancing around and flopping out of her top on a strip club stage while guys spray her with hoses. One of the most vocal patrons calls her "babe" and she severely injures him by throwing her shoe at his forehead. I can only guess all the paying, theater-going viewers of this film, seeing everything they had paid to see, left right after the credits.
Chris: This part always threw me, because I was 100% sure that Barb Wire killed that guy with her shoe, and wouldn't you think there would be some kind of repercussion for that? Even in the post-Apocalypse (where there are apparently still horny businessmen in suits?), you don't want your new feature dancer murdering the customers.
Matt: He's still muttering as the other guys carry him off, but serious brain damage is pretty bad, too. Her big problem with the guy is he calls her "babe," something that was in the marketing for the comics to differentiate Barb from a similar John Byrne character of that name. I guess it just stuck, and progressively became less self-aware.
Chris: Still, when dudes are hooting and hollering during a striptease and your response is to attack them with footwear, maybe you are not cut out for the post-Apocalyptic exotic dancing lifestyle. Fortunately, Barb's tenure at the strip club is merely a cover for her real job: Bounty hunting! Except not bounty hunting at all.
Matt: It's more like search and rescue, or PI work. She knocks out her lecherous strip-club boss with a James Bondish cigarette blowgun thing and saves a young girl who was meant to be put to prostitution from the freezer to return her to her grateful but creepy parents. It's kind of weird that strip club was in what looks like the the County records building, isn't it?
Chris: I didn't notice. I was too busy trying to come to grips with the idea that Catholic schools will continue to exist and have uniforms after the Apocalypse. As far as Armageddons go, this one didn't actually destroy a whole lot.
Matt: Up to and including all the copies of 1989's Batman, which Barb actually mentions as she uses a grappling gun to save the girl. Although, I guess we're only four years away from this film's 2017 setting and still talking about that movie.
Chris: Barb Wire is the David Uzumeri of Earth-26.
Matt: The girl's creepy parents didn't have Barb's full fee, so she takes their car and leaves them with their victimized daughter in the rain. She's not a very good person. We don't have much time to ruminate on that, though, because the movie suddenly becomes a D-grade cyberpunk anime for a scene.
Chris: I like that the parents have Southern accents, which makes me think that Steel Harbor might be the near-future version of, like, Atlanta. But yeah, it's time for sexy torture so that we can learn the plot, such as it is.
Matt: A doctor named "Cora D," no relation to Heavy, has turned on the government and is headed to Steel Harbor to meet up with some freedom fighters. She's got some "retinal lenses," which is just the names of two different parts of the eye, screenwriters.
Chris: She also has the antidote to the Evil Government's latest biological weapon in her DNA (sure, why not), and is trying to escape to Canada, a country that is used as the economically stable paradise everyone wants to escape to in this movie, to the point where you'd swear it was partially funded by the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce. Remember, folks: In the Grim Darkness of the Future, There Is Only Tim Horton's.
Matt: And here's storytelling economy for you: Right after we hear all of Cora D's plans in the torture scene, the chief torturer, Colonel Pryzer, who looks and sounds a little bit like Dark Ernest, repeats everything we just heard to some other vague authority figure, who we'll call Bad Vern.
Chris: This is after they've tortured a girl to death with what appears to be a steampunk bikini and an iPad app, too.
Matt: Cora D and pal Axel Hood arrive in Steel Harbor (I keep wanting to say Steelport) just as the night's getting started at Barb's bar, Hammerhead. If this movie has nothing else going for it, it does have Tommy "Tiny" Lister as a bouncer.
Chris: Do you think anyone would notice or care if we just started watching No Holds Barred at this point? Surprising no one, I have it on DVD. I guess we should stick with this, though, if only to figure out what is going on with Steel Harbor's population. The costumes at the Hammerhead are all over the map - two guys walk in dressed as gangsters from the '40s, complete with fedoras, but most everyone else is dressed like it's a '90s bondage club. Except, of course, for Udo Kier, who is dressed for a role in Casablanca.
Matt: Like, a weird, Germanic adaptation of it, though. Poor Udo Kier. Do you think he scrambled to get this or BloodRayne off his resume first?
Chris: He definitely needs to be in my Expendables-But-With-Villains movie. I think he'd do it, too, since we have ample evidence that he doesn't exactly turn down a whole lot of parts.
Matt: I'd say let's get Tiny Lister in there, too, but it's not too far fetched to think he'll be in a real Expendables movie.
Chris: We get a little character-building in this scene, as Udo Kier explains that Barb doesn't take on killer-for-hire type jobs. We also meet Barb's brother, Charlie, whose defining traits are that he's a) horny, and b) blind, in that order.
Matt: You say "character-building," I say "time-wasting." Meanwhile, Cora and Axel are being chauffeured to their meet-up, but are quickly surrounded by a group of cops who start shooting up the pair's car so excessively you have to wonder if this is less about Cora D and more about some childhood car trauma for them.
Chris: Back at the club, Udo Kier is understandably concerned about his paycheck - I feel like this is a conversation he was having with producers that they just decided to include in the movie - and Barb has officially teased her hair to the point where it's bigger around than her waist.
Matt: Which you can clearly see because basically all she is wearing is a corset, which doesn't seem like the most appropriate attire for just sitting around the office. She tells Kier to take care of Charlie and blasts out on her motorcycle to go "moonlighting," posing as a prostitute. She puts on more clothes (a jacket, anyway) to do this.
Chris: According to Wikipedia - which of course keeps track of this sort of thing - Anderson was cinched down to a 17-inch waist in those corsets, and still did her own stunts while wearing it. All joking aside, that's pretty impressive. Less impressive: Steel Harbor, The Last Free City™, which appears to just have random things on fire at all times.
Matt: Barb Wire is solicited by a guy named Reuben Tenenbaum (my guess is that's Ari or Uzi using his middle name, weirdly honoring the spirit of their grandfather) so she can go up to his apartment and find evidence of Mr. Krebs, inventor of the famous Krebby Patty, having been there. (Cora D and Axel are also looking for Krebs.)
Matt: This is a very small thing, but there's a moment here where Tenenbaum turns on a lamp and there's this loud "BOOM" sound effect that may be the most surreal thing I've seen in a movie outsie of a David Lynch film. It's just the way it lingers on it. It's so weird and interesting that I can only assume it's an accident.
Chris: I don't know, what with contrasting red and green lights and weird sexual overtones, this whole scene might be taking a page out of the David Lynch playbook. I know that Tenenbaum wandering out of the bathroom in his bondage gear and saying "no... i was bad" in a baby voice when Barb asks him if he washed his hands is creeping me right the f**k out.
Matt: Anything even kind of visually interesting ends pretty quick, though. Barb knocks Tenenbaum out and blows up the wall to find Krebs behind there, in a whole different, much darker lighting setup. Then there's a gunfight with some dudes that lasts for a very long time.
Chris: Dudes who are also dressed as '40s gangsters for some reason, and a fight scene that involves the occasional cartoon sound effect, because who the hell knows anymore. Barb eventually beats up enough people that one of them calls her "babe," so she gets to slowly pick up a gun and shoot him six times while he stands there patiently waiting for her to do so.
Matt: And it all ends with a joke about how she broke a nail. This movie.
Chris: It's very empowering. Barb drags Krebs back to his bail bondsman, and if there was any doubt left that we are firmly in B-Movie territory, say hello to Hollywood Actor Clint Howard.
Chris: Barb threatens to cap Krebs unless she's given $20,000 in crisp, maple-scented Canadian bills, and Clint Howard agrees without there ever actually being tension in the scene. Barb asks for something, Clint says no, Barb makes a threat, and Clint says okay. Then, everybody goes home. Plotting!
Matt: A victorious Barb returns to Hammerhead in her formal bustier dress to pay the help and do her patriotic duty by dancing with a soldier. It might have some pathos if we had any real concept of the conflict that was going on. Instead, it plays more cliche than cliche.
Chris: Apparently, there was a little more about the war in the original opening, but it was cut out to make room for Anderson gyrating with her top off while being hosed down, which I think tells you everything you need to know about the motivations behind this movie.
Matt: Halfway into the dance, the cops, led by Xander Berkeley, one of the finest actors we have when it comes to playing jerks who are also sort-of good guys, burst in and start harassing customers. They're investigating a double homicide at the harbor, because I guess they didn't hear about the four or five guys Barb herself killed earlier.
Chris: See, this is another muddled plot point: He's looking for Krebs, so I thought he actually was asking about Barb killing those guys, and the reveal was that the gangster-looking bros keeping him locked down were actually cops. But they weren't, and the chief of police has no idea where Krebs is, despite the fact that Barb handed him over to his bail bondsman. It doesn't really make much sense, nor does it make sense that Barb changes back into her corset to seduce Willis (I guess?) only to then give him money and watch him leave.
Matt: The guys Police Chief Willis is asking about are the two Axel killed earlier when he broke their necks (it happened kind of fast and didn't seem that important) but who weren't anywhere near Krebs, so they were doing an awful job of guarding him.
Chris: As you may have realized by this point, this movie is kind of poorly written. But hey, please enjoy two minutes of slapstick as Barb Wire's dog eats a dude's penis in the next scene!
Matt: "Miss Kopetski died in the war. I'm Barb Wire." That is a line someone wrote down.
Chris: How ironic that Anderson's delivery would be so flat.
Matt: And, really, that whole scene is the dog bites the guy in the crotch. It is the epitome of a DVD deleted scene. But here it is, in the movie.
Chris: Eventually, the guys from Washington - including Pryzer, the dude who was doing all the torture and exposition earlier - come to Steel Harbor and show up at the Hammerhead for drinks. There are some threats made about what will happen if Cora D. isn't captured, and then Barb joins them, with Anderson choosing to play this scene with a kind of sleepy grumpiness. Every time she speaks, it's as though she's mad at someone for waking her up from a nap.
Matt: Pryzer looked like Dark Ernest before. Now he looks like Nazi Ernest, which seems like an Ernest movie they would have actually made. It's the first moment you get that, "Is...is this supposed to be Casablanca?" feeling and realize you could be watching Casablanca instead, seeing Humphrey Bogart act disaffected instead of seeing Anderson's complete lack of affect.
Chris: The Not-Nazis (Notzis?) ask for Barb's help in finding Cora D., but before she can commit to helping them, Udo Kier wanders over and tells Barb that zere is trahble in ze keetchen, giving her a good excuse to leave. But oh-ho! What's this! Our plot threads begin to come together in some kind of half-assed knot as Cora and her bodyguard show up at the Hammerhead themselves!
Matt: This movie should not only really get going 40 minutes in. It does not earn that at all. Casablanca can totally do that. It's got atmosphere like crazy and it's really enjoyable to hang out with Rick and Ugarte for a while. It more than earns its deliberate pacing. Barb Wire is a 138-minute movie that should be about 50.
Chris: And yet, here we are, with our first good look at Cora's bodyguard, Axel. And hey, it's Jango Fett!
Matt: I'd say he's here to make a really cool character uninteresting, but there's no one for him to do that to. He stops by to see Charlie, who it turns out is an old war buddy. He wants Barb to help get him to those freedom fighters; Charlie says he should get out of there before Barb sees him. He doesn't an Barb punches Axel across the jaw.
Chris: I guess she didn't like Attack of the Clones any more than I did. He asks for Barb's help because he "remembers when she used to believe in something," and they hash out a bunch of history that has already been established enough that this is tedious, but not so much that there's anything actually interesting. Point being, he's her ex-boyfriend and also a Resistance fighter, and now he thinks she's siding with the Notzis.
Matt: A reasonable assumption, since they're right there. Axel and Cora D leave to find Charlie outside, with an offer of help. He tells them about a secret resistance meeting spot. There's some to-do about the resistance identifying them that ends in more or less that misdirection gag from Airplane II where William Shatner is on what looks like a TV screen but is actually a door. The resistance leader, Spike, talks in this robotic voice that seems like she's talking over a loudspeaker. But nah, that's just her voice.
Chris: She's got this big scar, which I think is meant to explain why she needs a voice modulator, but it's just on her face. She seems nice, though, probably because she's the first person to actually smile in this entire movie.
Matt: The filter on her voice is just awful, though. It's got a whole fingers-on-a-chalkboard sound to it. And it muffles everything she says! Way to totally undercut the first likable character we've seen, guys.
Chris: Yeah, she's hard to understand, but fortunately this movie was written so that everyone talking to her is restating everything she says in the form of shocked questions. Turns out, somebody cut out Krebs's eyes! That's a twist, I guess, since it implies yet another faction in this conflict being introduced 47 minutes into things.
Matt: Yeah, those retinal lenses Cora D needed to get on a plane and get out of there with her precious DNA are gone now, and Clint Howard's nowhere to be found.
Chris: Obviously, they're going to have to turn to the one person who has connections on all sides: Barb Wire. Thank you for finally joining us, The Plot Of This Movie.
Matt: Will the title character of the movie help the non-Nazi-like faction, even though she doesn't seem to want to do anything without getting paid? Will Clint Howard show up again? Will this movie find even more ways to waste its relatively brief running time? Join us next week for part two to find out!
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