ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘Tank Girl’ (1995), Part One
Chris Sims: Hello everyone, and welcome to ComicsAlliance’s in-depth review series on the indie superhero movies of the ’90s. This week, we’re starting in on 1995′s Tank Girl, a movie that features Ice-T as a mutant kangaroo. Somehow, I managed to forget this fact for the past eighteen years.
Matt Wilson: It’s frankly astonishing how many things about this movie I’d forgotten over the years.Chris: Had you seen it before? I never had until this past week, and while I know that recent years have seen it gaining a minor cult following, it’s not hard to see why it didn’t do so well on its original release.
Matt: I saw it not long after it came out on home video, around the time my interest in punk was starting to ramp up, so it should have been right in my wheelhouse. All I really recalled about it was it being a pretty serious disappointment. I felt then, as I sort of do now, that the movie tried just a little too hard to be kewl with a k.
Chris: I’ll go ahead and out myself as a poseur in all respects for this one: I haven’t even read the comics, although I think it’s safe to say that we’re both fans of Jamie Hewlett’s later work with Gorillaz.
Matt: Yeah, I love Gorillaz, and I love the look of Hewlett’s work. I’ve read through a few bits and pieces of Tank Girl comics, but mostly just admired the art. Apparently lots of prominent people were big fans, though: Steven Spielberg and James Cameron were each interested in directing it at one time or another, if IMDb is to be believed.
Chris: Man, I wonder what that would’ve been like. Instead, the movie was directed by Rachel Talalay, who made her directorial debut in 1991 with Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, and who had worked with John Waters as a producer on several of his films. And really, that makes a lot of sense, when you consider the counterculture aspect that had given Tank Girl its initial burst of popularity. On paper, this movie made a lot of good choices.
Matt: And yet this ended up being Talalay’s last feature, though she’s gone on to a very productive career as a TV director. Maybe if Talalay had been given free rein to pursue that counterculture angle and John Waters feel, this movie wouldn’t be as muddled as it is. But, as seems to be the case with every 90s movie we watch, studio meddling made it kind of a mess.
Chris: The experience was so bad for Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin that they’ve referred to it as “horrible,” and Hewlett turned down what Wikipedia calls a “‘big money’ offer from Dreamworks” for the film rights to Gorillaz rather than lose creative control. But yeah, “mess” is kind of the word for it. It’s probably the most 90sest movie I have ever watched. And I have watched Hackers. Multiple times.
Matt: It’s up there with that one, Empire Records and Reality Bites for the title.
Chris: But like I said, it’s got a lot going for it. I’m going to guess that I am probably way above average as a fan of Point Break‘s Lori Petty, and she’s kind of perfect for this role. The rest of the cast is solid, too, despite being given weird roles: Naomi Watts as a shy, mousy mechanic, Ice-T as a kangaroo, Malcolm “I Will Do Anything For A Paycheck” McDowell as the same character he played in Star Trek: Generations…
Matt: And Iggy Pop as Rat Face! I love to see Iggy Pop acting in stuff. But we’ll get to the performances in the wrap-up. What do you say we get things started?
Chris: Might as well. I got nothin’ better to do today.
Matt: The opening credits are about as genuinely cool as this movie gets, in that they’re two minutes of Jamie Hewlett art set to Devo’s “Girl U Want.”
Chris: Not the last we’ll see of some pretty solid music choices, or of Hewlett’s art – one of the things I really like about this movie is that it uses pages and panels from the comics as establishing shots and occasionally as part of the actual movie, which gives it a nice weird feel. Of course, Hewlett said later “They forgot to film about ten major scenes so we had to animate them,” so maybe not as pleasant on that end. Works pretty well, though.
Matt: Once the credits end, we get the first of Petty’s voiceover narration for the movie, in which she explains that it’s 2033, a comet hit the earth and there’s no water left. It’s rather charming for a minute (her “it’s not all bad” about twenty people having to take baths together at a time is chuckle-worthy), but then you kind of realize we’re going to be told everything that’s important this way.
Chris: Attractive ’90s punks struggling for water will be the driving force of the plot, such as it is, which led me to call this movie “What If Dune starred the cast of Hackers?” And again, I really like Lori Petty, but what you could charitably refer to as Tank Girl‘s “irreverent humor” blows past comedy and gets to “grating” toute de suite.
Matt: Her “Uch, you are SO dead,” to the Ripper victim she encounters in the desert is pretty awful.
Chris: Tank Girl – who doesn’t have a tank yet and is therefore just “Rebecca” – returns from scavenging out in the desert to play some allegedly sexy BDSM roleplaying with her boyfriend, making him strip at gunpoint in their greenhouse. Considering that he is wearing the single dumbest shirt I have ever seen, I understand why she’s so eager to get it off of him.
Matt: It’s weird how there are two establishing shots of the Renegades’ HQ — one of the actual building and another of some Hewlett art. It would appear the filmmakers clearly preferred the drawing to their practical set. Maybe…they should have just made an animated movie.
Chris: I thought the same thing when they did the weird fight scene later after Jet gets bonked on the head. If this thing was fully animated, I feel like it could’ve been the successor to Heavy Metal, instead of the successor to Heavy Metal that we actually got.
Matt: Anyway, Rebecca’s weird, militant flirting with her boyfriend ends with a couple of kids, Max and Sam, (one of whose shirt says “wanker” on it) running in and seeing his bare ass. What shenanigans!
Chris: Ha ha! Why, these so-called “renegades” are just good-hearted attractive people in their mid-20s and adorable children! I sure hope nothing awful happens to them! But for now, let’s check in with Malcolm McDowell, who is Malcolm McDowelling it up over at Water & Power HQ.
Chris: I’m not even gonna lie: I am a complete sucker for guys like Malcolm McDowell as villains. I want a version of The Expendables that’s the villains instead of the heroes with him, Jeremy Irons, Alan Rickman, Kurtwood Smith and that dude who played Salieri in Amadeus.
Matt: F. Murray Abraham! That dude is great. McDowell chews scenery with delight in this scene, smashing up his own glass (?) diagrams of the desert and making one of his captains walk on the debris to prove a point to the rest of his men about prioritizing water collection and following orders. He, of course, kills the guy in front of everyone at the end by sucking the water out of his body with a nifty device. Future business is rough.
Chris: McDowell then takes off his own shoes (??) and walks across the broken glass, but doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it. He then toasts his remaining soldiers and drinks a guy’s body fluids, and any joke we could write for that would be way too easy for comedy writers of our caliber.
Matt: Blood and water, Chris. That’s all that’s in a body.
Chris: Once it’s been established that McDowell is significantly villanous – which could’ve been done easier by just having him turn to the camera and list his previous credits – we cut back to Renegades HQ, where Rebecca is getting her kicks by pretending to be dead to scare a child who, for some reason, has one of the balls from Phantasm.
Matt: It’s boring in the desert. Stuff like pretending to be dead, Phantasm balls and saying things like “buttsmear” are what keep these people sane. Back in the HQ, Rebecca’s boyfriend finds his birthday present, a pair of, well, lets just call them Doc Martens. It’s the ’90s. He (or someone she believes to be him) comes outside to witness a…curiously seductive scene of pantyhose cutting set to…it’s not Nirvana, but it sounds a lot like ‘em.
Chris: I believe this is the dulcet tones of Gavin Rosdale and Bush. But yeah, it is thirty solid seconds of Lori Petty tattering her stockings with a pair of safety scissors with dinosaurs on them, which is significantly less erotic than it might sound.
Matt: It is, in fact, Bush’s “Bomb.” The observer of this scissors-based seduction, she discovers, is not her boyfriend, but is actually a Water and Power mercenary, one of many sent to raid the HQ for their water theft. Rebecca handles her guy by luring him in with the promise of nudity only to blow him up with his own grenade. The rest of the HQ fares far worse. Her boyfriend takes about 20 shots to the stomach and the building’s burned to the ground. The mercs eventually subdue Rebecca and arrest her.
Chris: The WP mercenary is the first of several characters in this movie who will attempt to rape Rebecca, only to be seduced into injury or death. So… Grrl Power, I guess?
Matt: It does not take long before the next one, either. On the transport, another merc tries to force Rebecca into performing oral sex on him, and she breaks his neck. I will say that Petty plays none of this as a scared victim; she lures these guys in with a sort of BDSM approach (“I like pain”). So it’s not as skeevy as it could be.
Chris: “I like pain” is by far the worst line-reading of the movie, but Petty makes up for it almost immediately with the exasperated “What?!” she gives to the guys who pull guns on her after she snaps the dude’s neck. And considering that she manages to make it to WP HQ without being shot, I guess everyone agreed that dude was a real a-hole. I will say, though, it’s never really clear why they take Rebecca prisoner rather than kill her. The only reason they give is that they want to “have fun” with her (oy), but they end up throwing her into some weird mining operation.
Matt: There is a brief scene where Malcolm McDowell offers her a job and she refuses, though it doesn’t really seem like these guys knew that’s what he would want to do.
Chris: They mention that she’s managed to kill eight of the bad guys, so she’s at least got that as her qualifications.
Matt: Down in the mine, Rebecca makes a Baywatch joke while Hole plays in the background (Get it? A mine? Hole?) just in case you forgot it was the ’90s.
Chris: While Rebecca’s down there digging… for… water? I guess? We move instead to the hangar to meet Jet Girl, played by Naomi Watts, who we know is not sexy because she’s wearing glasses and has brown hair. As you might expect at this point, she is also being sexually harassed by WP guys.
Matt: She is not possessed of the same kill-your-mate powers as Rebecca, so she just hits her guy in the face with a power tool and gets back to work under the jet she’s fixing.
Chris: Naomi Watts is sporting an Australian accent in this movie, which means that our three main characters so far have three completely different accents. Where exactly is this movie meant to be taking place?
Matt: I guess you could say that the catastrophe that led to the severe limiting of water did away with the need for countries, but that kind of makes the accents make even less sense.
Chris: Apparently the comics took place in Australia, which kind of makes the kangaroos make sense, but man, it is muddled. Either way, it’s time for a sentence I never thought I would type: Here’s Lori Petty in an erotic slow motion de-lousing.
Matt: One that’s preceded by a shot of a sign that says everyone has to take showers in their underwear, which explains why she’s delousing a tank top in the process.
Chris: This movie either has some weird ideas about what’s sexy, or weird ideas about how to parody sexy shower scenes in action movies. I’m leaning to the former, if only because the next scene is a powdery Rebecca interrupting the further harassment of Jet by claiming she’s her girlfriend and kissing her. It’s not the Naomi Watts/Lori Petty makeout we need, but to be honest, it’s probably the one we deserve.
Matt: I wonder if Naomi Watts had some kind of stipulation in her contracts that there had to be at least one makeout with another actress in every movie she was in for a while. If nothing else, this powdery kiss does play as pretty funny. Watts’ shocked reaction to it is good for a laugh.
Chris: I’m a little confused about where Jet stands with Water and Power, though. I figured she was one of their technicians, but is she a slave, like Rebecca? If not, what’s she doing down at the delousing shower in the mining caves? And why is the other guy there at all? I think I might be overthinking the employment hierarchy of Tank Girl.
Matt: They’re there so Rebecca can overhear them, and that’s all.
Chris: After staking her powdery claim on Jet, Rebecca crawls through a pipe (I guess?) and ends up in the sandy parking lot where WP keeps all their tanks, checking them out to the tune of the theme from Shaft by Isaac Hayes.
Matt: That is the complex origin of movie Tank Girl: She saw a tank and thought it was cool.
Chris: The tanks need a code to get started, though, or else they’ll kill you with cyanide gas. Rebecca doesn’t have the code, but fortunately her new friend/lover (?) Jet is following her around, and saves her from a gassy fate. This kindness is met with Rebecca choking her and then making her do a drama exercise where she sits across from her and makes emotive faces.
Chris: While all this is happening, Malcolm McDowell is watching on his apparently infinite security cameras.
Matt: “My my, she’ll be fun to break,” he says as he plays with a water pistol. I guess when you delegate your authority, you don’t have to worry so much about your world-owning corporation’s day-to-day operations.
Chris: If that’s the case, he really shouldn’t get so mad and make guys stomp across broken glass when they fail to conquer the entire world. Jet gets a warning that Rebecca won’t be around much longer, which makes her sad, and then Rebecca visits her in a bathroom stall, which makes her happy. Jet is a woman of emotions.
Matt: Another emotion of Jet’s is fear, which she expresses when Rebecca says they should escape and go see “Cats.” She must read a lot about the past. In the middle of their conversation, a guard grabs Rebecca up and takes her to what looks like that freezer from The Shining.
Chris: Malcolm McDowell comes to visit Rebecca in the freezer, but when her only complaint is that the straitjacket they have her in keeps her from masturbating (this is seriously what she says), he decides to throw her down a pipe and keep her there for an unspecified length of time. It basically looks like a crappy waterslide, which makes me think that he’d probably have better luck terrifying her if he chucked her into one of those slides that got Action Park shut down.
Matt: Haven’t we already established that Rebecca actually gets around by crawling through pipes? How is this a punishment?
Chris: Yeah, she’s suddenly extremely claustrophobic to the point of hallucinations, which is at odds with every single thing we have seen in the movie thus far.
Matt: Being in the pipe also gives her Predator-vision, which is how she sees flashbacks to the Renegades HQ being burned down.
Chris: You’d think that stuff would be bothering her for the entire time, but no, it really just comes out once she’s in this tube.
Matt: Meanwhile, the Rippers have trashed yet another WP outpost with a big fiery asterisk. Malcolm McDowell decides Rebecca would be the perfect detective to find how they infiltrated the place, because, remember, she likes tunnels and stuff, except when she doesn’t.
Chris: McDowell drags her out of a tube so she can go find their “sub-gate,” but almost flips out and kills her when she proves she still has not exhausted her reserves of sass. Once they get to the outpost, he injects her with a tracking device, and for the rest of the movie, Rebecca will wonder how WP are able to track her moves. She’s… not very bright.
Matt: It turns out they don’t even need her to find the sub-gate! They’ve already found it. They’re just sending her in as the canary in the coal mine. Before she can even head down, though, the Rippers and their budgety-costumes attack while Jet Girl watches in horror from her plane.
Chris: McDowell gets an arm ripped off, but Rebecca survives unscathed by… hiding behind a truck? Did nobody else ever think of doing that? Apparently not. She stomps on the severed arm and then gets ready to take off, but Jet lands and says that she’s decided to come with Rebecca, leaving Water and Power behind forever. It’s actually a pretty nice moment, capped off with Jet telling Rebecca to take the Tank, and Lori Petty doing a great mug for the camera with “Are you sure?”
Matt: And so, only 41 minutes in, Tank Girl becomes Tank Girl, though it’s pretty clear she has no idea what she’s doing at all, cartoonishly conking Jet Girl in the head with the tank’s gun as a lead-in to an actual cartoon sequence.
Chris: Like I said above, this sequence is easily one of my favorite bits of the movie. The animation’s smooth, the style is great, it’s the first thing about the movie that’s really fun.
Matt: It’s a little more Liquid Television than it is Heavy Metal, but it is dynamic, hyperkinetic and surreal in ways the movie as yet has not been. It certainly seems like a more appropriate Tank Girl mood.
Chris: To its credit, I do think it really works well as a post-bonk-on-the-head hallucination sequence, but it does make me wish the entire movie had been done like this.
Matt: It haphazardly segues into a scene where a disfigured McDowell, who’s in a getup similar to Woody Allen’s robot costume in Sleeper, is told he’ll never see again. That’s when James Hong, who I swear is reprising his role from Blade Runner, offers some highly expensive reconstructive surgery, and one of McDowell’s sergeants kills a doctor for no real reason.
Chris: Fun Fact: James Hong makes everything 1,000% better. Also, you have seen him in 1,000% more things than you realized.
Matt: No matter what the movie surrounding him is like, the guy has a good time.
Chris: Once he’s done Lo-Panning around with his robot arm, we rejoin Girls Jet and Tank (non-animated) as they look through a room full of junk for… supplies, I guess? Tank Girl spots some of the sculptures that her little friend was making back before the raid. Before she can react, though, they’re ambushed by that one girl from the B-52s.
Matt: That’s certainly who Sub Girl looks like, but that’s actually Ann Cusack, sister of John and Joan, who would go on to shame the family on The Jeff Foxworthy Show. Tank Girl asks where the sculptures came from, and Sub Girl lies about it. Tank and Jet know this because Jet has a lie-detecting machine she whipped up to use on strangers.
Chris: Jet’s lie detector is one of my favorite little bits about this movie, if only because it shouts “LIAR!” in a very accusatory robot voice.
Matt: It’s weird how some arbitrary things work and others don’t. “Jet Girl has a lie detector just because she’s smart and she does” is fine, but “the girls go to this junk store in a WP-branded tank because they feel like it” is a head-scratcher.
Chris: Sub Girl as a chatty post-apocalyptic gossip works a lot better than Sub Girl as a sky-god-praising hippie with crimped hair and a shotgun, too. On one level, you have to respect how much they’re throwing at the wall, but there’s a huge gap between what sticks and what doesn’t.
Matt: Par exemple: The gear-modding montage that follows, which is really more of a short scene intercut with comics art that feels stretched to the breaking point. It’s almost like it was made to include as much of this Beowulf song as they could manage.
Chris: It is far and away the most Music Video-ish sequence of the movie, which is saying something. The repeated shot of Tank Girl flopping back into an armchair might as well have segued into a voiceover saying “drugs are wiggity-wack!”
Matt: Or Lori Petty just making peace signs at the camera.
Chris: So with that, the Tank and Jet are outfitted with non-WP-approved paint jobs and tchotchkes glued all over them, and we are finally past the origin portion of today’s proceedings.
Matt: Meanwhile, Malcolm McDowell is hooked up to an EKG that shows actual wave graphics and James Hong grips his neck with a big pair of pliers. Medical technology got weird in the 2030s.
Chris: I do love that wave on the EKG. It hits that magic “just weird enough” sweet spot that a lot of this movie falls on either side of.
Matt: Just before Hong apparently pliers his head off, McDowell reveals the carvings in the junk shop were a ploy all along, and the wet’n'wild strip club that plays Bjork music the girls are headed to is a trap. Oh no!
Chris: Will Tank Girl and Jet Girl be able to make it out with Actual Girl? Will the movie kind of forget that it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world without rain or water for about a half hour? Will we finally see Ice-T in kangaroo makeup and witness a full-on musical number? I’d say you’d have to wait ’til next week to find out out, but I’ll go ahead and let you know that the answer to all of these questions is yes. So join us next week, as we tackle the second half of Tank Girl!
ComicsAlliance vs. the ’90s: