ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘Barb Wire’ (1996), Part Two
Chris Sims: Welcome back to our two-part review of 1996’s Barb Wire, everyone, and let’s be honest here, Matt: Do you think anyone has ever done a two-part review of Barb Wire before?
Matt Wilson: I can imagine a scenario in which someone passed out from lack of oxygen to the brain about an hour in.Chris: It’s really just our stubborn insistence on cataloging everything that doesn’t make any sense in this thing that’s keeping us going. When we last left off, the Evil Government had killed a bunch of nameless extras – including a dude who was in Steel, I believe – in their search for some super contact lenses that could help a woman with special DNA get to Canada. That, and some of what Cinemax describes as Brief Nudity, is the sum total of plot we experienced in the first 50 minutes of this film.
Matt: Yeah, the Notzis burst in and kill three dudes, one who looks exactly like Orlando from The Mask, but is somehow NOT him.
Chris: That’s what it was! The Mask. So wait, you’re telling me there are two big dudes with the shaved-head-except-for-a-braided-ponytail look getting work as heavies in comic book movies?
Matt: You know, sometimes the other guy’s not available. They’re the Bill Paxton and Bill Pullman of braid-only hair.
Chris: The leader of the Notzis, Pryzer, is pretty upset at his men for busting in and just cold murdering the goons without leaving one alive for questioning. It’s all for the best, though, I don’t think I could take another shot of the steampunk torture bikini.
Matt: But having Norlando in there would put a whole new twist on it. Charlie arrives at Barb’s bar, Hammerhead, to find his sister drinking her troubles away. This leads to a war flashback (!) in which Pamela Anderson (!!) in hilarious camouflage (!!!) remembers having to leave Axel behind at some kind of explosion barn. Why SHE would be mad at HIM about this is…well, it’s puzzling.
Chris: Well, not that I blame you for not paying attention, but we know from her earlier dialogue that he broke his promise. So presumably, he promised to never leave her waiting at the helicopter while he was checking out the explosion barn. It’s very tragic, though, as he was only searching the battlefield for more strawberry lip gloss for her.
Matt: I’m not sure if we’re missing things because we want to or because the movie’s just terrible at telling its story. Anyway, Clint Howard shows up to interrupt this episode of post-inconvenience stress disorder to trade Barb the retinal contact lenses to try to save his hide. You know, I’m really confused how those lenses work (How could a lens change your retina? How could you get through any scanner if they identify specific people?) but I don’t really think I want the movie to explain it to me.
Chris: Anderson keeps rocking her drowsy/grumpy acting style throughout this scene, to the point where Clint Howard eventually seems to get bored and wander off on his own. For reasons I cannot even begin to understand, he decides to hide them in Barb’s kitchen. I get that he doesn’t want to have them on his person, but… why there?
Matt: He’s mad at her and this will sic the Notzis on her, I believe. Elsewhere, a group of government scientists has Norlando in a big tub of ice because that’s how you get memories from dead guys in this universe.
Chris: Oh, right, I forgot that this is kind of a sci-fi movie and that means you can hook up one of the computers from Fallout 3 to a dead body and get a printout of his last thoughts.
Matt: How making a cold dead guy colder will make his brain more active is not apparent to me, but whatever. The Notzis pull a memory of Barb out of his brain and Nazi Ernest demands her arrest. Chief Willis protests, but not too hard, and gives in pretty fast. Meanwhile, Barb is taking a bath in a see-through tub, which is a thing people have.
Chris: You can say a lot of things about this movie, but you can’t ever claim that it doesn’t have its priorities straight. Nude, bubble-covered Pamela Anderson first, any sort of plot, acting, character, or attempts at easing the tedium all tied for a distant second.
Matt: Axel shows up for a visit and some cliche “How’d you get in here?” “Let myself in” talk, which leads to making out on an elevator and an awkward encounter with Cora D, who’s revealed to be Axel’s wife. It’s all pretty rote.
Chris: He even says “the only thing I wasn’t prepared for was running into you.” Like, out loud. To another person. But friends, that’s the only thing in this scene that’s rote, because this movie is about to blow your f**king mind with how crazy its plot is. Remember like six hours ago when the bad guys talked about Cora having the cure to a biological weapon in her DNA? Well, it turns out that the weapon in question is government-engineered Super-AIDS.
Matt: Yeah. Weaponized AIDS. Casablanca had letters of transit an a Czech resistance leader’s work against the Nazis, Barb Wire has “retinal lenses” and weapon AIDS.
Chris: And not only that, but it’s AIDS that kills you in twelve hours (??) and is codenamed, wait for it, “Red Ribbon.” I genuinely hate this, but it’s so f**king dumb that I almost love it.
Matt: I really don’t know if it’s supposed to be kind of silly or the writers wanted to genuinely comment on a real and deadly epidemic, particularly at the time. It’s impossible TO know.
Chris: Oh, I think it’s 100% serious. There is no doubt in my mind that they thought this was going to be a shocking and compelling revelation.
Matt: Anderson’s look of, let’s say, mild constipation and her no-sell of the line, “How utterly goddamn heroic” doesn’t really put that across, though.
Chris: I’m pretty sure it was meant to be a contrast to all the sexed-up sexiness of the rest of the movie, and Cora basically calling Barb a whore right after underlines the point. It doesn’t underline it well, you understand, but it’s there.
Matt: Cora D begs Barb to tell her where the lenses are but Barb deflects the question. That’s when the Notzis show up and raid the old box factory that is Hammerhead. Barb tries to pass off Axel and Cora D as threesome partners and it is awful.
Chris: Her actual line is a growly “I like a good ménage every now and then,” and the look Pryzer gives her in response is the exact same look I gave my screen when she said it.
Matt: Pryzer orders Cora D. and Axel get scanned anyway, but the scanner malfunctions. Charlie broke it when they tried to scan him because…he read the script? So Pryzer lets them go. Wouldn’t you think they’d know Axel by appearance? They explained Cora D plastic surgery, but he looks exactly the same. And the Notzis have machines that can read thoughts and s**t.
Chris: Dead people thoughts! They have things that can read dead people thoughts, but they don’t bother to ask for, say, any other form of ID. I guess retinal scans have made everyone complacent.
Matt: It’s like digital cash registers. Nobody can make change. Not one to leave without something being destroyed, Pryzer orders Hammerhead trashed. The little goofy series of moves he does to communicate this, with cartoon sound effects and everything, is another kind of wonderfully surreal moment in this morass or awfulness.
Chris: The destruction of the bar is almost impossible to care about because it was pretty janky to begin with, but the bright shining moment is Udo Kier, pawing at a chainlink fence and selling it like he’s watching someone murder a child while this squealing In The Heat of the Night guitar riff plays underneath him.
Matt: It’s like he’s making up for Pamela Anderson’s non-acting with DOUBLE ACTING.
Chris: He’d have to ratchet things up to quintuple acting if he wanted to balance her out.
Matt: Not even the Kier can shoulder that load. In the next scene, Barb lets her blind brother paw around in a room full of broken glass while she argues he should be an amoral scoundrel and not help Axel.
Chris: Yes, as it turns out, Charlie had the contact lenses in his pocket the entire time! Pockets: The perfect hiding spot! They’ll never check there!
Matt: It’s all because the Notzis won’t bug a blind guy. Like, seriously, Willis was like, “Leave him alone, fellas,” and they did!
Chris: Say what you want about the tenets of national socialism, at least it’s an ethos.
Matt: Nihilist Coward Barb rides her motorcycle to a garbage dump to try to sell a big fat man laying in trash named Big Fatso the lenses. Get this, guys: Big Fatso loves food!
Chris: Three things to note here: One, this scene transition marks the return of Barb’s voiceover narration after an hour. Two, when she drives out to the junkyard, there are suddenly some straight up Mad Max looking bros in this movie, which is our first reminder in at least thirty minutes that this is supposed to be a weird post-Apocalyptic thing. Third, and most importantly, Big Fatso – who is introduced gnawing on a chicken leg – is referred to as the “King of the Underworld,” and as Matt said, he is LAYING ON A PILE OF GARBAGE. What in the f**k is going on in this movie?!
Chris: There is a dude with a biker jacket and a Roman centurion helmet on, I swear to God.
Matt: Big Fatso’s in a big steam shovel, too. That’s how he travels. It looks uncomfortable as all hell. I guess the chicken/turkey leg (it’s huge) is just what underworld bosses who live in weird desert locations eat? I’m basing this on that one Batman: The Animated Series episode, “The Forgotten.”
Chris: I can’t dispute that Batman: The Animated Series was based entirely on fact, but still. I honestly feel like I am going completely insane as I watch this movie. Clint Howard is dead in a refrigerator with an apple stuffed in his mouth.
Matt: Big Fatso begins negotiations for the lenses while Charlie walks into an old hangar asking for “the resistance leader, Spike,” which is a pretty bad way to run an underground resistance. Of course, she’s dead now, too. No actors you like will survive! The Notzis got her and are arresting Charlie for hiding the lenses.
Chris: There’s a bit in this scene where Pryzer says “You can cooperate, or you can join your little friend,” referring to Spike’s dead body, and instead of the more conventional “I’d rather die,” Charlie shouts “I’d rather join my friend!” It’s… it’s so f**king weird.
Matt: Barb fake-laughs her way to a deal for $750,000 in Canada Bucks and safe passage through the “Unoccupied Zone,” an area with toll collectors who must go home to some suburbs or something after work.
Chris: Charlie, meanwhile, is being tortured to death by Pryzer for his insistence that Santa Claus has the contact lenses. And you know, if this movie suddenly had Santa show up and start fighting alongside Pamela Anderson, I would only be slightly surprised. Back at the bar, Udo Kier is sweeping up, and Barb arrives to give him the deed to the place. Probably would’ve been nicer if she’d done that before the Gestapo trashed the joint, but, you know, it’s the thought that counts.
Matt: In the Charlie torture scene, Pryzer seemed shocked that Charlie doesn’t have any memories he can watch. Why was it so hard to clue these guys in to the fact he was blind?
Chris: Also, their mind-reading machine that works on dead people doesn’t work on the blind. Because now there are rules for that. Honest question, did a five year-old write this movie?
Matt: Yeah, it’s not like a guy who could see at one time wouldn’t have visual THOUGHTS, you know? Anyway, Barb’s all set to ride off into the sunset in her…what is that, an armored ice cream truck?
Chris: I thought it looked like a zombie-proofed UPS van.
Matt: But Udo mentions that Charlie went to see Spike, and she emotes more than she has at any time previously in the movie. Which is to say a little.
Chris: Yeah, she ends up landing at “slightly concerned,” which is both surprising and justified, as she rolls over to the warehouse – a warehouse with no actual doors, the ideal base for a secret resistance group – and finds Charlie crucified. I have no emotional response to this whatsoever.
Matt: Barb goes only slightly above that. Cora D and Axel arrive from their trip to the soda fountain or whatever to find everyone dead, many from hanging. Axel pushes back a plastic curtain to find Barb kneeling over Charlie’s body with…streaked mascara. S**t just got real.
Chris: Before long, Barb goes back to her normal state, squeezing all those emotions down into her corset, and we get an extended scene of people loading guns. Or, in the case of a shotgun, unloading it really fast so that it looks cool.
Matt: Barb twice insists the lenses are safe before she, Axel and Cora D head off down Steel Harbor’s one fiery street to the edge of the Unoccupied Zone, where Big Fatso, steam shovel and all, is waiting for her with a gold debit card. She pulls out the lenses, which are safely stowed in her breasts.
Chris: The meetup with Big Fatso is out past the UN roadblock – thanks, Obama – and when the time comes to make the payoff, it’s revealed that Fatso is trying to give her a briefcase with a debit card in it.
Chris: This movie is f**king bananas.
Matt: Here’s another bananas detail: Big Fatso knows who Axel an Cora D are JUST BY LOOKING AT THEM, which is something the all-powerful government could not do. Cora D changed her face! What is going on?
Chris: Maybe Big Fatso wouldn’t try to screw Barb over with the gold debit card if she didn’t keep calling him “Big Fatso.”
Matt: Fatso, or, as Nazi Ernest calls him, “Mr. Big Fatso,” has sold Barb, Axel an Cora D out to the Notzis for a huge payday. Pryzer orders Willis to arrest them, but Willis, upset about what happened to Charlie, puts a grenade in Barb’s hand instead of cuffing her. She throws it straight into the air and it blows up Big Fatso’s crotch.
Matt: That’s straight-up sizeism.
Chris: I can’t even figure out what is happening anymore. First of all, the bad guys have Barb surrounded. Even though Willis puts the grenade in her hand behind her back, there are guys behind her looking at her. And Big Fatso exploding… Guys, it is Looney Tunes.
Matt: The grenade’s effects are very selective, too. Everything is chaos, but Barb manages to peel out in her Food Truck of Death and blast through the toll station into the Uninhabited zone. Pryzer gives chase.
Chris: Axel and Cora are understandably upset with Barb for selling and then blowing up the special contact lenses they’ve been looking for for the entire movie, but not so upset that they won’t wait until the Notzis are done trying to kill them before they settle things. Barb rides her motorcycle out of Death Truck, and I guess it has missile launchers on it now. Is any of this in the original Casablanca? I haven’t seen it.
Matt: They only have it in the alternate ending on the limited edition Blu-ray. Also, it’s one of the finest films ever made, so you should probably get on that. It will be weird how your points of reference for it will be Barb Wire and Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, though.
Chris: I think that’ll be a fun game, though. Whenever anyone talks about Casablanca, ask them if they mean “the original, or the remake with Pamela Anderson.”
Matt: What follows is a not-altogether clear action sequence in a bunch of abandoned factories which seem oddly well-maintained for a place with no inhabitants (there are stop signs!). It ends with a few dead no-name Notzi guys, Axel, Cora D and Wills headed for the airport and Barb stalling for time.
Chris: Axel goes back to keep Barb from dying – which is pretty weird since less than a minute ago he was threatening to kill her for blowing up the contact lenses – and then, in the latest (and greatest?) example of this movie going absolutely insane, Pryzer tries to kill her with a forklift.
Matt: Why is Cora D even bothering to go to the airport anyway? For all she knows the lenses are destroyed. Again, the only explanation can be, “She read the script.”
Chris: Also why is the only road to the airport through the “Unoccupied Zone,” which is very clearly occupied by the Raiders from Fallout?
Matt: I don’t know. But back to the forklift thing, imagine if there was a whole other, Ernest-style movie told entirely from Pryzer’s perspective, in which discovering the forklift was some great moment of clarity for him, like when Ernest discovered milk kills the monsters in Ernest Scared Stupid. That’s right. I’m the guy who advocates for watching Casablanca and remembers Ernest movies.
Chris: Pryzer is laughing the entire time, too. THE ENTIRE TIME. Just this weird carnival robot clown laugh. This movie is insane, Matt. It’s f**king insane.
Matt: I swear to God, he is Dark Ernest. This is exactly what Jim Varney would be doing.
Chris: And then a dock worker shows up! Like, a regular, non-post-Apocalyptic dock worker in a hardhat working the crane! WHAT THE F**K IS GOING ON?
Matt: IN THE UNOCCUPIED ZONE!
Chris: Axel knocks out the dock worker (?!) and then uses the crane to pick up the forklift (?!?!) before Pryzer can “vaporize [Barb’s] springy ass” and holy s**t is this movie real? Is this really happening?
Matt: I am laughing myself silly right now, Chris. This movie has graduated to “enjoyably ludicrous.” Congratulations, Barb Wire!
Chris: I can’t even laugh at it. I am just… just agog at the whole thing. Barb and Pryzer are fighting on a forklift being swung through the air over what I guess is the actual Steel Harbor. And then – oh my God, sweet Jesus have mercy upon us – Pryzer cackles “This is just like my favorite song! I Got You Babe!”
Matt: The One Dock Worker in the Unoccupied Zone sent me into hysterics. But yeah, Pryzer says this apropos of absolutely nothing. Also: He has the worst taste in music in all of future history. It apparently takes him saying “babe” to make Barb actually want to kill him. Not him killing her brother or wiping out the whole resistance or destroying her bar. The word “babe.” I would say this movie officially has porno logic, but pornography often does a much better job than this.
Chris: Barb somehow figures out how to drop everything off the crane, so she does, and it all hits the ground and just f**king explodes because of course it does, then we cut to inside the crane where Axel is giving her a thumbs up.
Chris: What is even happening to us right now, Matt.
Matt: It’s a mix between Lovecraftian insanity from horror and some kind of transcendence.
Chris: I feel like I’m drunk. I feel like this movie has made me drunk. I don’t think I could stand up right now.
Matt: Willis and Cora D are hanging out at the airport, you know, not getting on the plane because they think the lenses are blown up, so why are they even there, when Axel and Barb arrive. Barb takes the real lenses out of her own eyes and gives them to Cora D, who puts them in. They make her eyes blue, despite the fact that the colored part of your eye is the IRIS, which is neither a lens or a retina.
Chris: Also, even if you haven’t seen Casablanca, you will recognize this set if you’ve ever seen, you know, cartoons. But the thing is, there are so many people here. Like, dozens of them, waiting to board this plane. Did all of them have to go through the Unoccupied Zone too?
Matt: And that famous dialogue from Casablanca? About the hill of beans, “maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow” and always having Paris? Here’s what’s in Barb Wire:
BARB: You’re gonna miss your plane.
AXEL: So, I thought Barb Wire never took sides.
BARB: Keep it to yourself.
Matt: I know brevity is the soul of wit and all, but JEEZ.
Chris: So yeah, Axel and Cora get on the plane, Barb shows off her fancy new debit card – which was confirmed to have actual money on it earlier in some awkward dialogue that we didn’t have time to talk about because everything around it was also crazy as hell – and talks about going to Paris. Then there’s some gunshot noises, the end. Holy s**t.
Chris: I have absolutely nothing good to say about this movie.
Matt: As I said, by the end this ended up being some kind of wonderful farce for me. I know it’s entirely unintentional, but I was in fits of laughter from the moment that worker guy showed up until the closing credits started.
Chris: I’m not going to lie and say that there weren’t moments where I laughed in this second half, but I can’t really enjoy it, either. This wasn’t “so crazy it’s awesome” or “so bad it’s good,” it was terrible, and then also f**king insane.
Matt: There are parts where I wonder if at least the actors involved don’t have some notion that they’re involved in a big joke. We never really mentioned his name, but Steve Railsback plays Pryzer, and he just seems to be playing this whole thing like it was a Mel Brooks movie or something. Xander Berkeley, who plays Willis, is sort of detached from everything, this kind of, “Hey, I’m with you guys” winkiness to the audience.
Chris: I liked Udo Kier.
Matt: He seemed to be taking his work very, very seriously.
Chris: He’s really the only one who has a complete character arc: He’s nervous about getting paid, then they smash up the bar, then he has to rebuild it. That’s as close as I get to understanding anything that happened in this movie.
Matt: One last thing for me: There are these great, surreal moments that feel like they’re from a whole different movie. I want to see that movie. I realize that virtually none of my high points are intentional things the filmmakers intended, but I think they should take what they can get.
Chris: Which leads me directly into…
Matt: Here’s something I never thought I’d say: I didn’t really care for the nudity in this movie. For one thing, it’s pretty clearly tacked-on at the last minute. For another, it’s so brief it might as well not even be there. Go one way or the other, people!
Chris: If this movie was just the second half, I probably would’ve liked it – at the very least, I would’ve given it “hoot” status. But this… I don’t know if it’s apparent reading these reviews a week apart, but there is this huge tonal whiplash between the first half and the second. The first half of this movie wants to be, if not serious, at least badass, but the second part just turns into wacky cartoon where the bad guys are cackling maniacally for five minutes straight and things explode for no reason and there’s a big fat dude named Big Fatso. Like, the second this movie starts talking about Super Space AIDS or whatever the hell they decided to make the plot an hour into things, it goes f**king bonkers!
Matt: And the whole weaponized AIDS things is honestly something that is only mentioned once in one scene. It is there to shock/be relevant, whichever it was, and nothing more. The big weapon being AIDS serves nothing in the story.
Chris: Here’s a sentence we’ve probably written more often than any other: Nothing that happened in this movie made any sense. There’s no logic to what the characters do, or how things work, or any of it. There’s a machine that reads dead people thoughts.
Matt: And the writers somehow thought it would be clever to throw all that stuff into a remake of Casablanca. That is not clever. That is the worst idea. It’s bad enough to invite people to compare your movie to one of the most widely acclaimed films ever made. But when you’ve got cyberpunk torture tables in your movie, too? What they f**k are you thinking?
Chris: I don’t want to pile on what is surely well-trodden ground here, but man, Pamela Anderson is not good at acting, which is weird when you consider that she was a professional actress at the time. Like, this was her actual job. That “menage” line, JFC.
Matt: There are so many exchanges you could point out. Her reaction to the AIDS thing. Every time she says “Don’t call me babe.” That last part where you have to think about her trying to come anywhere close to Humphrey Goddamn Bogart.
Chris: This might be the dumbest movie we have ever had to watch for these reviews. It is 98 minutes long. It feels like we have been watching it for days.
Matt: And yet I laughed, which is more than I can say of the mirthless, Rob Schneidered hellhole that was Judge Dredd.
Chris: Fair point.
Matt: Barb Wire fooled many a poor young man who thought he was going to see some gratuitous nudity and instead got a high school book-report version of Casablanca. If we can hope for anything, it’s that a generation learned a lesson about limiting one’s expectations from it.
Chris: I have never been so ashamed of a poster hanging on my teenage bedroom wall, and believe me, that is saying something. But we made it through, Matt, and we are at last at the end of our tour of the ’90s. So what’s the final verdict? What was good? What was the worst?
Matt: The good is easy, because there was only one movie that was genuinely good: The Rocketeer.
Chris: I also thought The Mask held up surprisingly well. It wasn’t the laugh riot that it was when I was 12, but it wasn’t as grating as I feared.
Matt: It’s solidly “not as bad as I remembered.” As for the worst, I think I have to give it to Stallone.
Chris: The real winners here are Lori Petty and Naomi Watts, because they don’t even come close to the depths that Judge Dredd and Barb Wire got up to. Still, I think Barb Wire is the absolute rock bottom. Dredd was at least visually interesting.
Matt: It’s a tight race between Barb Wire and Judge Dredd. But, again, I laughed during Barb Wire. Judge Dredd just made me grimace and grit my teeth. It’s like it made me into a drawing of Judge Dredd. There is no joy in Judge Dredd. That’s the one that felt like it was 1,000 years long to me.
Chris: I wasn’t happy with Dredd, but Barb Wire… I mean, just scroll up. I thought I was having a fever dream. Either way, we’re done with ’em.
Matt: So now we have to figure out what’s next.
Chris: Or rather, our readers will! We’ve been running a poll to determine our next subject, and today is the last day! If you haven’t already, get your votes in now!
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