CAPSULE: TANK GIRL (1995)

DIRECTED BY: Rachel Talalay

FEATURING: Lori Petty, , , Ice-T,

PLOT: Set in the apocalyptic future, an outlandish young punk battles the mega-corporation that controls the world’s water, with a little help, of course, from mutant kangaroos.

Still from Tank Girl (1995)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The peculiar visual palette and oddball characters in Tank Girl don’t stand out from the omnipresent colorful punk aesthetics of its time. Its tonal inconsistency and mildly bizarre violence (along with a manic Lori Petty) can serve as a sort of goofy surreal serenade, but it never ventures far enough from its comic book origins to really sizzle.

COMMENTS: The 1990’s was an interesting, vibrant period for punk culture.  The 1981 Penelope Spheeris documentary The Decline of Western Civilization introduced us to heaps of buzz-cut youngsters sporting thrashed denim and safety pins, their mumbled words scattered due to their adrenaline pumped, amphetamine-fried brains.  Nearly a decade later, after punk had (to some degree) conceded to generic glam/hair metal, Spheeris released part three of Decline, but the kids looked different this time around. Gone were the black and white clothes, the shaved heads. These kids had rainbow spiked hair held up with egg whites, as they snorted neon Slurpees up their noses while their zit-infested faces smothered the camera. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death, kids on the fringes of the punk scene were embracing pop sensibilities and dying their hair like Billy Joe from Green Day while they bought Offspring shirts and purple hair dye from Hot Topic. It was an ideal time for a project like the counterculture comic book adaptation Tank Girl to get greenlit. Tank Girl, which shares an aesthetic with other excessively lively and colorful 90’s movies like Batman Forever and Double Dragon, emerged as a mainstream amalgamation of a larger cultural shift that would continue with the punkish neon of movies like The Phantom and SLC Punk. Channeling inspiration from punk rock culture and feminism, Tank Girl soars with excessive frivolity.

Staying close to true punk form, Tank Girl also contains crass humor and some reasonably nihilistic violence.  Like the militant, borderline-psychotic urban youth that got their kicks from cheap speed and beating up poseurs, the titular character (Lori Petty) seems to get off on pain, whether inflicted on herself or others. She chuckles mirthfully after strapping some grenades to a goon’s vest—a combat move that brings to mind a certain Caped Crusader’s mischief in another punk-indebted 90’s film—and responds to a grave threat from Kesslee (villain Malcolm McDowell) with the line “I like pain”. Indeed, Tank Girl snottily defies convention by wearing its B-movie badge with honor.  All the performances seem to sync with the frisky ambiance, the one exception being the nascent Watts as the square Jet Girl, who in a perfect world may have fared better swapping her role with Nicole de Boer’s from 1997’s cult sci-fi hit Cube.

Tank Girl naturally provides ample dick humiliation jokes to corroborate with the riot-grrl aesthetic that made the comic a hit—especially since most of the villainous beta-male tools that work for Water and Power (an evil corporate entity) are rapacious horn dogs and homicidal maniacs (led by McDowell, an actor without a single non-entertaining bone in his body). Thus, when Tank Girl comes across a piece of artillery that she wants to commandeer, a comic flash cut jabs us with a quick “big unit” reference. Near the beginning of the movie, Tank Girl plays a sexual role-playing game with her boyfriend, holding him at gun point and making him strip naked, and it becomes clear that this whimsical, care-free girl takes orders from no one but herself. Lori Petty’s Tank Girl is a curiously disaffected young punk who would rather sit by herself and cut holes in her stockings than seek out ways to combat the repressions of her post-apocalyptic community. She also prefers physical torture over listening to poetry, as she indicates to an effete McDowell during one of his classic literature quotes.

Plot-wise, Tank Girl mimics its source material by bouncing around randomly, but rarely is there a sense of danger or any reason to be concerned about the characters. This makes the experience of watching the movie feathery. This is both a good and a bad thing. It doesn’t so much move or inspire as help make a boring afternoon a little less dreadful. In one amusingly violent scene, McDowell punishes an underling by draining his body of water with a suction device after making him walk barefoot through broken glass. After drinking the water, McDowell delivers that malicious Droog smile and pithily exclaims, “lovely!” Scenes like this are intermittently spliced with zooming images of the original comic art, while the high-energy rock and roll soundtrack keeps the mosh pit revolving.

Tank Girl is at its most entertaining while the eponymous character is in her natural habitat (a tank).  While the 90’s pop hit “Disconnected” by Face to Face plays in the background, she sips a martini and blowing things up, resulting in a modicum of riotous fun. The flaming big rigs rolling across an apocalyptic desert riddled with gassed-up freaks resemble a C-grade, watered down perversion of Mad Max, but then that’s not so bad now, is it? A few scenes are almost surreal, such as when Tank Girl threatens to cut off a brothel owner’s hair unless she sings Cole Porter’s 1928 hit “Let’s Do It”. By the time the scene evolves into a dance number with everyone doing the can-can, more than a few sighs are induced, but it’s nothing that nitrous-inhaling mutant kangaroos can’t fix (thank you, Ice T!) Unfortunately, even when these kangaroo mutants are shown dancing, the effect is more embarrassing than weird.

Charming and elaborate set designs, some impressive animated sequences, and a sense of anarchic glee evoke the essence of the comic, but the movie’s more nimble qualities (tacky one-liners and one-dimensional characters) make it a somewhat frothy, flat experience. It doesn’t hurt to examine the movie like a fashion shoot with a cute but tough girl swaggering through post-apocalyptic sets, stomping on the men who get in her way and laughing about it over nitrous cocktails. Tank Girl functions best as a light popcorn flick for a rainy day or as a means to impress feminist-leaning friends. Girl Power!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“How well you’ll tolerate this utterly unhinged quasi-feminist comic book fantasy depends on your Lori Petty threshold.”–TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by “jace fryman,” who simply called it “extremely weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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