(1995) Directed by Rachel Talalay; Written by Tedi Sarafian; Based on the comic by: Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett; Starring: Lori Petty, Ice-T, Naomi Watts and Malcolm McDowell; Available on DVD
“It's 2033. The world is screwed now. You see, a while ago this humongous comet came crashing into the earth. Bam, total devastation. End of the world as we know it. No celebrities, no cable TV, no water. It hasn't rained in 11 years. Now 20 people gotta squeeze inside the same bathtub – so it ain't all bad.” – Tank Girl (Lori Petty) (From IMDB)
Reviews for this amalgamation of post-apocalyptic science fiction tropes and comic book sensibilities weren’t exactly kind when it was released, but there was something that compelled me to watch Tank Girl anyway. While my memories of the film became hazy over the years, I recall that I kind of liked it. Almost 20 years later, I still kind of do. I’m baffled this ever got the green light, but I’m glad someone saw fit to bankroll the film.
I could be at a disadvantage that I never read the comic Tank Girl was based upon, but depending on whom you ask, the film version probably wasn’t a very faithful adaptation. Concessions were likely made to appeal to a broader audience, unfamiliar with Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett’s comic. Rather than debate how strictly the film adhered to the source material, I’d rather focus on the film at hand
The post-apocalyptic landscape depicted in Tank Girl shouldn’t be unfamiliar territory to those familiar with Mad Max or its numerous imitators. Water is a precious commodity, controlled by the evil Department of Water and Power. As our eponymous heroine points out, they possess most of the water, and they have the power. Lori Petty plays the title role like an impudent teenager. Her character looks and acts like a live action cartoon. As written, she has about as much depth as a kiddie pool. We never really get to learn much about her, or her history, but maybe that’s not the point. She exists as an enigmatic archetype for the rebel without a clue. If there’s an establishment, she’s against it.
Naomi Watts appears in an early role (almost unrecognizable with dark hair and glasses) as Tank Girl’s timid sidekick Jet Girl. Her character arc experiences a significant shift, as she transitions from a tool of the Department of Water and Power to become Tank Girl’s accomplice. She’s the reserved yin to Jet Girl’s obnoxious yang.
The always watchable Malcolm McDowell plays Kesslee, malevolent head of the Department of Water – the sort of sneering villain role that’s become his specialty over the years. Although he could likely perform this type of character in his sleep, he seems to be having a good time, which he corroborated in a recent interview. In one memorable scene, he conducts a toast to his villainy by drinking water extracted from one of his dead minions. He demands absolute loyalty, and tolerates zero mistakes. His contentious relationship with Tank Girl could be likened to that of an authoritarian parent and a rebellious teen. While everyone else buckles under, she continually thwarts his attempts to subjugate her to his will.
Director Rachel Talalay keeps things lively, endowing the film with an anarchic style. The live action scenes are strung together with flashes of comic book stills and snippets of Heavy Metal-style animation. The soundtrack is a pastiche of songs thrown together in haphazard fashion, a veritable who’s who of artists from the mid-90s, including Bjork, Hole and L7. One of the more effective byproducts of the film’s chaotic style is an impromptu song and dance number at the midpoint. When she infiltrates a brothel where a young girl is being held captive, Tank Girl forces the madam, played by an uncredited Ann Magnuson, to sing the 1928 Cole Porter tune, "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love." A full-blown rendition ensues, replete with a Busby Berkeley-esque display. This clever nod to musicals of yesteryear is the film’s high point, setting the bar a little too high for the scenes that follow. We’re introduced to a group of mutant kangaroo men (from a Stan Winston design), known as Rippers. Their leader, T-Saint, is played by Ice-T (who else?), who doesn’t do much but sneer. They become Tank Girl’s allies, which leads to a pedestrian conclusion, featuring a standard shoot-‘em-up and showdown with the bad guy.
Although Tank Girl failed to win over audiences during its theatrical run, the film deserved better than it got. By the same token, I couldn’t be too surprised by its weak reception. It’s the definitive cult film, enjoyed by a minority, while the rest of the world scratches their collective heads. Some scenes go nowhere, and the climax is all-too predictable, but the film is full of a bizarre exuberance that’s oddly irresistible. The mixed bag we end up with reminds us we need more oddball films like Tank Girl, and far fewer Transformers flicks.