A movie based on a British comic book series (that I haven’t read), starring Lori Petty (who I’m not familiar with), made in the year 1995 (which I was barely sentient for). In other words, I’m bringing what’s probably the right amount of baggage to Tank Girl: none. I’m not some comics fan whose childhood is ruined. This movie might as well have been made by aliens.

I had fun. Tank Girl is a weird and special movie. It’s either really good, or a profoundly fascinating failure that rises above pitiful conceits like “good” or “bad” like Gautama Siddhartha attaining enlightenment. The colors have a raucous Bava-esque pop. The script dangerously mixes Loony Toons gags with riot grrl punk energy. The visuals blow holes in your retinas. The set designers either spiked their morning cocaine with Viagra or their morning Viagra with cocaine. The actors are freaks (sometimes literally), and the lead plays her role like it’s a choice between this movie and porn, which it may have been.

It’s not perfect. The second half is far worse than the first, and a studio clearly fucked the whole project in the ass (if you’re going to imply a human-kangaroo sexual relationship, you don’t get brownie points for keeping it PG-rated), but that only adds to its delirious, warped quality. It’s like wandering through a cinematic junkyard; trash-strewn and ugly, littered with broken things that are barely recognizable as treasure.

It’s supposedly set in Australia. I say “supposedly” because the very first thing we hear is a chick saying “IT’S TWENNY FIRRY-FREE AND THE WORLD IS SCROO’D NOW!” in a foghorn of a Bronx accent. A comet has hit the earth, and it has not rained in eleven years. I hate it when that happens.

The narrator proves to be Tank Girl. We see her riding a cow through the desert (the first of many nods to Mad Max 3), though we never discover where she pastures it. She later upgrades to a tank that has spoilers, stickers, and even a BBQ grill. Her motives are to find (steal) a birthday present for her boyfriend, who lives with her at a kind of hippie commune, stealing water and avoiding the totalitarian Water & Power company (whose acronym, with a little imagination, is WAP). They live in riotous squalor. Everyone fucks and looks like they smell bad.

Everyone is Beautiful and No-One is Horny remains an insightful piece of writing on what’s wrong with modern superhero films. They are packed with ludicrously attractive people, but don’t allow them to do anything gross, ugly, or vulnerable. Ironically, this includes have sex: the purpose of attractiveness. What’s left is cold, inert marble: beauty for the sake of beauty (Captain America doesn’t look hot to attract a girl, but to attract an audience—it’s a classic Keynes Beauty Contest). Modern Hollywood is so irreversibly neutered that young people get angry and uncomfortable when there’s a nipple on screen. Did Oppenheimer really NEED a sex scene?? Was it really NECESSARY??? Everyone wants beauty, nobody wants bad smells and ruptured condoms. Tank Girl flips the script: everyone is horny and no-one is beautiful. It has an ugly, gross animal to desire to shock you with biology. Midway through the movie, Tank Girl is captured by W&P goons for stealing water, and straitjacketed with her arms behind her back. She throws out a line about how it’s hard for her to jerk off. There’s a lot of that kind of writing. It’s just an attempt at realness.

Tank Girl was made in an era that can be identified with a laser’s precision: the mid 90s. Post No Doubt, but pre Spice Girls (in a legendary piece of SG lore, Geri and Victoria met in the lineup at a Tank Girl casting call).

It’s definitely a movie of its time, stuffed with dreadlocks and neon and Kandi raver bracelets. The visual design is as pungent and earthy as the performances. It benefited from a brief period American interest in Australian culture, provoked by the likes Paul Hogan, Yahoo Serious, Steve Irwin, and Outback Steakhouse (not that the movie has anything to do with Australia—if it had come out in the age of New Labor and Cool Britannia, they probably would have played up its origins as a British comic strip instead). Lori Petty is heavily made up to look like Gwen Stefani. After she gets captured by the W&P, she gets a splat of paint (or blood) on her head. It looks kinda like Stefani’s bindi.

In the pre-Spice Girls clip above, Geri Halliwell introduces herself as “Geri, as in Tom and Jerry.” This is an outstanding segue from Ms Estelle Halliwell-Horner, because I am burning up inside to talk about Tom and Jerry.

Whatever emotions you feel for T&J, come on…can we admit it’s obviously a cartoon that was conceived in five minutes, tops? It’s the most generic and obvious idea there is. “One animal chases another animal!” And what animals, pray? “I dunno. A cat and a dog? Is that good?” Tank Girl has some of the same “character created in thirty seconds with a gun to the writer’s head” quality. She’s a girl. A girl with a tank. It’s a concept that writes itself. You can even imagine like five jokes that are actually in the movie (her tank makes men feel inadequate, etc). Tanks are impressive but not particularly conducive to stellar action scenes, and the movie struggles to integrate Tank Girl’s tank (an M5A1 Stuart) into the action believably. (Apparently, the Stuart’s reverse gear was broken, so if they needed to do another take, the tank had to drive around in a huge circle to get back to its starting mark.) So while I haven’t read the Tank Girl comic, I’m suspicious that the movie ruins too much. It may have been ruined to begin with.

I like that it has no reverence or respect. I watched some Zack Snyder thing once and had to stop, partly because of all the slow zooms on Superman’s somber face, dramatically lit, while stirring music swells in the background. Enough. Superman is a Depression-era funnybook character who wears his underwear on the outside and Schuster and Siegel were paid $130 to create him. Can we please have some fun with this character, for the first time in 50 years?

And that’s where Tank Girl wins me over: it’s just fun, particularly if you’re tired of sterile perfection. Movies like this do not get made now. It’s a relic from the before-days (pre Raimi Spider-Man), when there were no rules for making superhero movies, after all, they usually bombed and got 1 star out of 5. But that’s dangerous. When failure’s inevitable, you’re free. You can take risks. Things like Barb Wire and Spawn aren’t good, but I’d rather watch them than BLACK HOLE AT THE CENTER OF MY BRAIN THAT PROBABLY DENOTES THE LAST MARVEL MOVIE I SAW. But now that superhero movies are reliably the highest-grossing films of the year, they cannot take risks. They sag at the gunwales with investor cash, and they cannot be allowed to sink. They must be as safe as blue chip stocks.

Tank Girl has some really frustrating moments. Like its spirit animal Mad Max 3, it opens strong but then kind of falls over in the latter part. The kangaroo characters cleverly designed but just tiresome, sucking up precious airtime. The villain gets defeated something like three separate times, each time returning (cackling) from the grave. You roll your eyes. But even at its worst, it’s a thousand times more watchable than modern superhero fare.

Some people are campaigning for a Tank Girl remake. Be careful what you wish for. There is no chance that Tank Girl and “2024” could collide without the results being unmitigated shit. Tank Girl would be an aspirational girlboss who rolls her eyes when men say she can’t do stuff. The zoophilia and pedophilia jokes would be replaced with “So that happened.” All the rough edges would be gone. The animal lust and bonkers tone would be replaced with a neutered, PG-13 aspect, with every joke focus tested. The studio meddling that compromised the movie in 1995 would have ruined literally every single frame. The movie would pitifully crip-walk into theaters, watched by nobody, hated by all. At best, it would be a Moebius-esque joke. In six months, it would be gone. Instead, it was made in 1995 and made like this. Fucked up. Glorious. Kind of eternal.

(It stars one actor I recognize: Malcolm McDowell. I’d previously watched him in Caligula and A Clockwork Orange. It’s nice that he keeps his pants on in this one. I guess he finally reached the level of Hollywood fame where he no longer had to sordidly strip for money. To all you young actors and actresses, let that be an inspirational story. If Malcolm McDowell can escape the casting couch, so can you.)

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