ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘Tank Girl’ (1995), Part Two
Chris Sims: Welcome back to what I am 100% sure is the most in-depth review of 1995’s Tank Girl you are likely to find! When we last left off, Girls Tank and Jet had just gotten their namesake vehicles and discovered that Tank Girl’s pal Sam was being held at some kind of post-apocalyptic bordello. Meanwhile, Malcolm McDowell had lost an arm and a face. Villainy promises to abound.
Matt Wilson: Also, Lori Petty’s hairstyle has changed like 12 times, despite there being little to no water for her to wash it with. She’s stylin’ dry!Matt: She can generate extensions at will.
Chris: That’s enough to get her into the Xavier School. As we rejoin the film, most of the cast is heading to Liquid Silver, the aforementioned bordello. And when I say “most of the cast,” that includes a bunch of dudes in lederhosen that aren’t ever justified, but don’t add to the “hey, isn’t this weird?” aesthetic of the movie quite as much as the filmmakers may have hoped.
Matt: Also in this bordello? Water. Like, a ton of it. People are splashing around in pools of it. I understand the notion of decadence, but this seems just wasteful.
Chris: I know! There is an actual waterbed in one shot! It’s past the point of decadence and more into kind of forgetting that there’s a water shortage in the rest of the movie. Like, why aren’t people attacking this place constantly? Nobody seems to have any guns, and Tank Girl’s able to just walk backstage to their recruiting area so that we can get an extended sped-up romp scene where she flouts your traditional notions of beauty, man.
Matt: I think this might be Tank Girl’s actual superpower. She’s got a real knack for just showing up in places she isn’t supposed to be, with no one seeming to mind.
Chris: That would explain why she was able to pop up into the tank garage and in Jet’s bathroom stall.
Matt: Exactly. She also seems to have an ability to make Comedy Sound Effects happen all around her, like when the style computer in the dressing room says all the employees in this bordello have to shave off unwanted hair, a razor pops out and there’s a Benny Hill-style “boioioioing!”
Chris: The Wikipedia article mentions Hewlett and Martin wanting to do more stuff like that, and I wish their had been. That’s the sort of thing that you really need to go all-in with.
Matt: Once Tank Girl is done upending society’s norms regarding beauty, she haphazardly runs out to find her young friend Sam, who’s being creepily admonished by disgusting pervert Iggy Pop. Poor Iggy Pop. He doesn’t deserve this. Though I guess he still comes of better than Meat Loaf did in Bloodrayne. Anyway, that hunt for the girl didn’t take very long.
Chris: Thanks for ruining The Adventures of Pete & Pete for me, Tank Girl. Thanks a lot.
Matt: No real effect on The Stooges, though.
Chris: Sam ends up justifiably mutilating Iggy Pop with her Phantasm ball from the first act, and then this… this is where things start to get weird, in a way that I actually really like.
Matt: Tank Girl and Jet Girl essentially take everyone in the bordello hostage, threatening the madam with makeup/hair removal and forcing her to sing Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It.” This turns into a full-blown musical number, with choreography and everything.
Chris: Seriously, the dancers join in with a chorus line, all the bordello patrons start singing along, and Tank Girl gets a solo. It is nuts, but in a way that actually feels interesting and earned – Tank Girl’s love of the past is set up pretty early on with her autographed picture of Doris Day, so it makes sense in a cartoony sort of way. I even like Jet angrily threatening the patrons with a gun unless they sing along. Also, if it wasn’t already, this scene makes it abundantly clear that Lori Petty in 1995 would’ve been the perfect live-action Harley Quinn.
Matt: You know, I never really thought about the similarities between this movie and The Mask, but seeing them so close together really bears it out, at least in terms of having obnoxious protagonists with cartoon powers and impromptu, inexplicable musical numbers.
Chris: I would be shocked beyond all reason if the studio’s stated goal with this movie wasn’t to recapture the success of The Mask, but with a punky female lead.
Matt: And, wouldn’t you know it, all the fun gets spoiled by the bad guys. Sgt. Whats-his-name orders the singing to end, and just like that, it does, as Water and Power mercs abscond with Sam. You know, the person who was the one reason Tank and Jet were here to begin with.
Chris: The weirdest thing about this whole sequence – up to and including Lori Petty in a kickline while Iggy Pop bleeds out somewhere – is that Sgt. Dudeguy is watching the whole thing on TV from Water & Power Headquarters. If they can do that, and if they have the tracking device, why don’t they just go get Tank Girl? They have an actual army.
Matt: Because Malcolm McDowell has a plan! And an arm that makes him look like Super Shredder.
Chris: If this movie had gotten 40 minutes in and then replaced Malcolm McDowell with Kevin Nash, I would be willing to declare it the best comic book movie of all time.
Matt: Because The Russian was so great in the Tom Jane Punisher. Tank Girl has a plan, too: She’s going to recruit the Rippers to take on WP, even though all we’ve seen of the Rippers so far is that they’re haphazard, non-discriminating killing machines.
Chris: This is the core of Jet’s objection to the plan, but as we have previously seen, Tank Girl does what Tank Girl wants. They traipse out to the desert and end up finding one of the Rippers’ sub-gates, a weird elevator that leads to an underground bowling alley where they are promptly captured and dosed with laughing gas while the Rippers – who turn out to be mutant kangaroo-men – interrogate them and debate whether they should kill or rape the Girls, a process that gives Tank hair like Coolio. And, look, not to be a wet blanket or anything, but I do think it’s worth noting that the Rippers, specifically Reg E. Cathey and Ice-T, are quite literally the only black actors in the entire film.
Matt: That said, I’m not sure that the Rippers actually conform to any real stereotypes (they like crumpets and tea, for example), but they certainly conform to the Star Trek rule of people of color always having the most complex, absurd-looking makeup.
Chris: I’m just saying, maybe it would’ve been a good idea to have at least one (1) black actor who was not a weird subhuman monster who was prone to violence and did choreographed Boyz II Men-esque dance numbers to didgeridoo music. But that bit comes later.
Matt: The dumb surfer Ripper enters the girls’ makeshift cell to exposit their whole backstory as a race to them (genetically spliced to become the ultimate soldiers, you know how this goes) and soon enough the girls are being conscripted into helping with a heist of a big WP shipment.
Chris: Tempting as it is to move on, I do really question this origin story. Wikipedia tells me that originally Booga was just a mutant kangaroo and not a genetically altered human, which makes more sense. I mean, if you were trying to create the ultimate super-soldier with animal DNA, would kangaroo really be your first, second, eighth, or forty-seventh choice? Even in Australia?
Matt: To complicate things even further, each of the Rippers are reincarnated people. So Reg E. Cathey was Jack Kerouac. Ice T was a cop (because of that song he made, get it). And Booga was a dog. OK then.
Chris: Tank and Jet get sent to verify whether the arms shipment is legit or a trap,which they do by texting photos to the kangaroos. That’s pretty prescient for 1995.
Matt: The images look like screenshots from Fallout 2, but war never changes.
Chris: In order to get close enough to get pictures of the weapons, the Girls put on sunglasses and pretend to be fashion photographers shooting for a Men of Water & Power calendar. It is both the most cartoonishly goofy bit in the movie, and one of the best. The part where Tank Girl walks up to a worker and says “you are giving me REALNESS” is the hardest I laughed in the whole thing.
Matt: It’s the worker’s look of exasperated confusion that really sells it.
Chris: Ice-T The Kangaroo tells Tank and Jet that if they really want to be “down with us,” they’ll have to hijack the shipment themselves. Which they do, after an extended sequence set to the ’90sest of ’90s pop punk.
Matt: It’s parts like this that make me wish this whole movie was just pure farce. Jet Girl’s plane having mechanical problems just seems so manufactured when Tank Girl’s grilling hot dogs on top of her tank and we just had a Bugs-Bunny-style photo shoot gag.
Chris: Yeah, it’s all over the map in terms of tension. Like, not ten minutes ago, we had a crazy musical number because she was holding someone’s haircut hostage, which came right after a little girl was almost molested by pedophile Iggy Pop. It’s not just inconsistent, it’s bipolar.
Matt: Not to keep bringing up The Mask, but at least it kept its cartoony parts separate from its more down-to-earth parts by having a magical relic involved. Here, it’s just cartoony, and then not.
Chris: The Girls head back to the bowling alley, where the kangaroos have prepared a salad bar to enjoy once they’re finished with jazz saxophone and dancing, and I am not making any of that up. This dance number, though. It looks like at least Bel and Biv were involved, if not Devoe too. It’s also revealed by Ice-T that they plan to destroy the weapons they just hijacked, which raises the question of why they didn’t just have the heavily armed tank and jet (girls) blow them up instead of stealing them and shlepping them all the way back.
Matt: It was a test, Chris! Once the pray-dancing ends, Tank Girl and Booga lay in post-coital bliss talking about the meaning of the Pac-Man utopia art on his wall. Tank Girl’s missile bra is intact, but apparently the studio forced Talalay to cut out Booga’s giant prosthetic penis. I’m kind of with the studio on this one.
Chris: The Rippers open up some of the crates to discover that they’re actually full of dirt, which you wouldn’t think would bother them so much since they got to kill some W&P guys and they don’t need any supplies anyway. But then they open one that has the body of their creator, Johnny Prophet, and they get mad enough to break stuff and join Tank Girl on her quest to kill Malcolm McDowell.
Matt: It might have been even a little bit more effective if any of this had been set up before the very minute it happened.
Chris: Once again, we go from zero to slow motion wailing and smashing stuff. McDowell is amused, at least, watching from his headquarters with his chair turned away from us and his new metal arm on display as though he’s about to fight Inspector Gadget.
Matt: Honestly, we only heard about Johnny Prophet, what, 10 minutes ago? How did WP know where to find him? How did they know he was connected to the Rippers? As far as we knew, WP was as in the dark about the Rippers as anyone.
Chris: At the end of the movie, this turns out to all be a plot by Water and Power to lure the Rippers to where they can kill them, but again: If they can go kill Johnny Prophet whenever, and also they have tracking devices all over Tank Girl, why don’t they just go kill them now? Hell, why did they fill up one of those crates with dirt instead of putting a giant f**k-off timebomb in there and blowing them up mid-salad? This movie makes no sense is what we’re getting at.
Matt: The girls and the Rippers plan to infiltrate WP HQ by repainting Jet Girl’s plane back to the way it was, and Ice T, quite rightly, says it’s a pretty weak plan. But everyone else is up for it, so that’s what they do.
Chris: It’s a plan that requires a great deal of cunning, stealth and surprise to pull off, making sure that Water and Power aren’t alerted that something’s wrong until the time is right to strike. So of course, the next stop is Tank Girl parasailing while blasting WP goons with an assault rifle.
Chris: Thing is, I don’t think this is meant to be the joke. It just happens to be the next scene.
Matt: The group in the plane is basically f**king everything up, too, because for some reason they chose the Ripper who isn’t Jack Kerouac to smooth-talk their way in, posing as another pilot. How they aren’t immediately shot out of the sky is beyond my powers of deduction.
Chris: Seriously, their actual plan involves having a guy repeat the very specific things that Jet is telling him to say, and they pick the dumbest guy to do it. Booga can barely talk at all, and there are at least two other dudes there who seem reasonably smart.
Matt: Eventually Jet Girl has to take charge and force her way in by being Forcefully Australian. Of course, Malcolm McDowell was hoping this would happen, because, I don’t know, maybe he’s the screenwriter.
Chris: McDowell is 100% aware of their plan at all times, but I don’t think he’s letting anyone on his staff know that he has evil plans going on that require them to pretend like they’re idiots who are easily conned by Naomi Watts. Also, he drops Sam into the tube from earlier, and It looks pretty fun, except for the part where he’s going to try to drown her. So… it actually is like that slide from Action Park.
Matt: The Rippers knock out the power, but Jack Kangarouac loses his life in the process. I think that’s how Kerouac really died, infiltrating a giant corporation and being shot by its private army.
Chris: Was the real Kerouac also dressed exactly like the Predator?
Matt: Chris, that question is silly. Everyone knows, if they’ve read On the Road, he was an Alien guy.
Chris: His final words are “I’ll see you cats at that big jam in the sky” and then there’s a sad saxophone sting. It is rough, rough stuff. But then the kangaroos start jumping around killing guys, complete with very visible wires attached to their costumes during the fights.
Matt: It turns into all-out bedlam, but Tank Girl manages to hear Sam crying for help in all that ruckus. But wait! It’s not her at all! It’s Malcolm McDowell doing a spot-on impression, like he’s Clayface or some s**t.
Chris: This leads to a fight scene, during which Lori Petty does a surprisingly passable impression of Muhammad Ali, and then finds out that Malcolm McDowell has replaced his head with a hologram, like you do.
Matt: Tank’s pretty quick to doubt her friend/lover Jet Girl, assuming she was working for WP the entire time after completely forgetting that they were tracking her with a tracking device.
Chris: McDowell gets the upper hand, which makes sense since the hand in question is metal and made of saws, and tells Tank Girl that he’ll let Sam out of the pipe without drowning if she only says that he won. She sneers “I’d rather her die than live as your slave,” which is bold and defiant, but, you know, maybe check with Sam first to make sure she’s cool with all that?
Matt: Before they can conference her in, the now-sentient tank bursts in and blasts some scaffolding, distracting McDowell long enough that Tank Girl can smack him with some pipes and send him careening into a grate that overloads his robo-arm. Again, it would probably have meant a lot more if we had gotten even an ounce of foreshadowing before now that the tank had a mind of its own.
Chris: Man, Tank Girl suddenly having conversations with her tank at 94 minutes into the movie is a little weird, and again, not in the way where you’re like “ha! good ol’ crazy surrealist Tank Girl does it again!” It’s more like “I guess this is happening now,” and then you shrug and go back to cutting your fingernails.
Matt: The tank runs out of ammo, so she jumps in and starts shooting beer cans out of it until one hits a bucket of water and it splashes onto McDowell’s head. That’s right. He’s fallen by what is essentially a dorm prank.
Chris: This goes on for-frigging-ever, too, with McDowell smacking away beer cans with his metal arm and yelling “COME ON!” like the Joker in The Dark Knight, only not good or interesting or compelling. Then she wanders over and kills him with one of those water-extracting stabbity things that happens to be there for no reason at all.
Matt: And the whole thing is punctuated by a drawing of McDowell actually dying because maybe he botched the one take he bothered to do.
Chris: Then, just to bring everything to its conclusion, Jet Girl shows up and shoots the guy who was harassing her. This would be just dandy, if it didn’t have the worst possible pre-kill line, which is him noticing the crosshair and saying “oh, f**k me!” and Naomi Watts replying “how many times do I have to tell you? I don’t want to.” Guys. Seriously. Is that the best you could do?
Matt: It is worth noting that Jet Girl has apparently absorbed Tank Girl’s magical hairstyle-changing abilities. I don’t think she had this same hair even in the last shot we saw her in.
Chris: At the very least, she has gained a bumpit.
Matt: So Tank Girl saves Sam, Booga informs her that the Rippers have taken over the rest of the compound and an animated sequence of a water-skiing tank caps everything off.
Chris: How exactly did the Rippers take over the Water and Power army?! How does that even make any sense? Oh, f**k it, here’s Joan Jett and Paul Westerberg doing a cover of “Let’s Do It.” That’ll make it all okay.
Matt: Animation and music. The saving graces of Tank Girl.
Chris: I think you just summed it up: Music and animation.
Matt: Yeah, the animated sequences that are really animated and not just zoomy shots of comic art, have a hyperactive feel that it seems the filmmakers were trying to achieve in the movie itself. It’s like being served a plate of food, and it turns out all you really want to eat is the garnish.
Chris: The first bit with Girls Tank and Jet hanging out together is really, really pretty, and the closing sequence is too. I mentioned before that I really would’ve preferred to see the whole movie done as a cartoon, but at the same time, I like how they save it for when things get weird to underline it all. I mean, that said, they probably should’ve done that with the musical number, but that was somehow even weirder in live action.
Matt: Speaking of music, this thing really does have a killer soundtrack. The Bjork song they use is the very best Bjork song, there’s a pretty good Ice T track, a Portishead song, and, you know, “Girl U Want.” Even the presence of Hole can’t bring it down.
Chris: I will say, nothing about this movie looks cheap. It probably helps that everything’s supposed to look post-apocalyptic and junky, but with the exception of those visible wires, it never looks like crappy moviemaking. The Rippers in particular look good – the effects were done by the legendary Stan Winston, who apparently cut his price because he liked the idea of doing kangaroo people so much.
Matt: Their makeup is really great and expressive, with the ear movements and everything. Their armor isn’t the best, but the practical effects with the vehicles and landscapes all do look pretty good.
Chris: Also, it’s a solid cast. Petty is about as perfect as she can be for the part, and while her serious moments don’t really work that well, I’m not sure if that’s because of her acting, or because there are two serious moments in a script that’s otherwise entirely composed of cartoony non sequiters and sex jokes.
Matt: I like Naomi Watts in just about everything, Reg E. Cathy is a hoot, and Malcolm McDowell is always great as a cackling villain. I’ll reserve my comments about Petty for the next part.
Chris: I sense one of our rare disagreements about to go down.
Matt: OK, so here’s the thing about Lori Petty. This whole movie rests on her shoulders. We’ll get to why the plot of this movie doesn’t work in a second, but a charismatic and compelling lead would have made that much less important. Instead, Petty is charming about 10 percent of the time and grating the other 90. That ratio just won’t stand. It’s like she’s Big Head all the time. The movie collapses under the weight of it. You’ve got to have Stanley in there.
Chris: I don’t disagree with you, but I think that’s less Petty’s fault than the material’s. She does pretty well with what she’s given, but this thing is a complete mess. There’s no internal logic – there’s not even internal logic to the lack of logic, which would at least make things fun rather than frustrating – things are added and removed from the plot for no reason, but none of that’s really her fault. It’s no coincidence that the scenes where she’s really enjoyable to watch (like the musical number) are the best written.
Matt: Maybe it’s not her fault, but I think she fails to elevate the material or figure out a way to make her character both a cartoonish nut and someone you like, which, for better or worse, is her job as the movie’s lead. A comic doesn’t necessarily have to do that; you don’t have to love a manic main character in comics. In a movie, it’s necessary.
Chris: Fair enough. I don’t disagree, but I tend to fall on the side of “likable despite the script” rather than “unlikable because of the actor.” What?! No I don’t have a crush on Lori Petty that’s silly ha ha what are you even talking about!
Matt: So anyway, the script. It’s really just a lot of stuff that happens, isn’t it? “Oh hey, now the Ripper’s spiritual leader, who we only just mentioned, is dead.” “Oh hey, the tank is kind of alive now.” Even the driving force of the story, that Tank Girl wants to save Sam, has no force behind it. We never saw enough of Sam to really care about her, beyond her being a little girl who was in trouble.
Chris: McDowell’s desire to break Tank Girl is classic villain motivation, but it also leads him to do some completely nonsensical stuff throughout the movie. He knows where she is and what she’s doing literally all the time, and that’s played as a reveal when we see him put the tracking device on her and then talk about it. To her.
Matt: Even the reveal of the Rippers as kangaroo men has no punch. What had we been told before that to make that they’re kangaroos seem interesting or like a revelation? Nothing.
Chris: Speaking of the Rippers, again, no other black characters? Seriously? In 1995? Yikes.
Matt: While we’re on the “yikes” part of this, a lot of men try to force themselves on Tank and Jet Girls in this. I guess we should be thankful that they’re terribly unsuccessful, but, man, come up with a different threat, fellas. Even the Rippers try to do it!
Chris: The Rippers, who we are supposed to like!
Matt: And, as we said, what a tonal minefield. Drop the attempts at pathos and just make a female-led Duck Soup, why don’t you? It’s what the Talalay seemed to like doing best, anyway.
Chris: Finding that balance between tension and slapstick comedy is tough, which we know because this movie completely fails to do so.
Matt: Tank Girl is a wonderful soundtrack.
Chris: Jamie Hewlett sure is good at drawing!
Matt: And we do get to see some of this drawings in the movie! Though, as I said in part one, how much better would this have been if it had just been full-on animated?
Chris: I think that would’ve at least helped even out the tone a little bit. This movie is extremely problematic, but I will say that it’s not boring. I can kind of understand why it’s been able to gain a cult following in more recent years, but still… It ain’t that great.
Matt: I suppose if you’re watching it for things like production design and costumes and sets rather than plot or acting, it’s got a definite appeal.
Chris: Or maybe you’re a Lori Petty completist. No shame in that.
Matt: She was definitely great as Livewire in Superman: The Animated Series. See? She was meant to be a cartoon all along.
Chris: So yeah: Tank Girl was not exactly a great experience for us. But next week… Next week, Matt. We will be watching Barb Wire.
Matt: Heaven help us.
Chris: I get the feeling we will be longing for the days of Tank Girl once we are advised for the eighteenth time to not call her babe.
Matt: Save us, Lori Petty!
ComicsAlliance vs. the ’90s: