In praise of Tank Girl the movie

Martin's a lover, not a hater... of the anarchic 1995 sci-fi actioner that polarised audiences and went cult against a critical onslaught...

A rare moment of reflection for Lori Petty in Tank Girl (1995)

As I frankly confess in today’s interview with Rachel Talalay, I am an utterly rabid fan of the movie that she made from Jamie Hewlett’s late eighties comic. If the younger geeks amongst us imagine that the zealous mania for fidelity in the Watchmen movie is a new phenomenon, they should have seen the rancour of the core Tank Girl comic community when the movie opened in 1995. In fact they can, anytime they like, for the arguments still rage on web forums and blogs worldwide.

I don’t care. For one thing, I enjoy the Tank Girl comics, but if it hadn’t been for Talalay’s movie I would never have bothered to seek them out. For another, Tank Girl is no guilty pleasure; the absolute split between lovers and haters on these Tank Girl debates reassures me that I’m in multitudinous company in enjoying possibly one of the most marginal films MGM ever sprung $25 million for – even if they tried their hardest to take the fun out of it in the editing suite.

Too much good stuff remains: Lori Petty’s anarchic, shaven-headed and almost psychotic sense of mischief, as she endlessly mind-fucks both friend and foe just because she gets bored when she stops; the rippers, outrageous beatnik kangaroos, genetic hybrids left over from obscure military experiments, rendered lovingly by the late, great Stan Winston and – admittedly – a mixed bunch of actors inside the suits; Malcolm McDowell’s outrageous comedy turn as Keslee, the Water & Power overlord who punishes company slackers by painfully extracting all the water from their body and drinking it with relish, not to mention his unusual methods of persuasion (“Shoving a small, innocent child down the pipe and then slowly letting her drown. Is that wrong?”); and a really great road-chase between an articulated truck and a tank.

This is one of the few non-biopic movies where a relentless rock n’ roll soundtrack was absolutely the only way to punctuate the action, and the film sets off to a high-energy launch with Devo’s cover of Soundgarden’s ‘Girl U Want’ (the original being too expensive to buy for the film).

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The use of cartoons isn’t limited to the obvious positions of opening and closing credits, but rather entire sequences are rendered with zippy and outrageous cartoon montages. Did the production run out of money to create SFX shots for these? No idea – who cares? It works, and if the montages did save any money, the remaining special effects are excellent.

Lori Petty changes outfits a dazzling 18 times in the film, rivalling any soap opera queen of the preceding decade, and Talalay isn’t afraid to break out of metafeminist character and go girly, even at one point turning the action into an utterly incongruous rendition of Cole Porter’s ‘Let’s Do It’.

I haven’t yet mentioned the plot, because frankly, it’s just an excuse to let the character of Tank Girl rip, tear up the world and dance in the resultant confetti, but basically it’s a rescue mission wherein our heroine must rescue the Newt-like Sam (Stacy Linn Ramsower) from the clutches of the evil Keslee with the aid of newly-found but dubious allies the rippers.

As plots go it’s a serviceable post-apocalyptic sci-fi actioner, but Lori Petty treats it with the same disdain as she does any of the idiots who try and cross her, men and women alike; Tank Girl is about meeting and enjoying the company of a unique woman whose sense of personal liberty is her raison d’etre, not about whether Greedo shot first; Petty’s character is a woman whose response to a glass ceiling is to get her diamond cutter out with a wicked laugh and set to it. In this sense, she shares a lot of appeal with various incarnations of Catwoman, except that she holds her own marginal insanity on a much tighter leash and parades it proudly as Best Of Breed. Her personal conflict begins and ends with whether she should shoot you in the head or the groin.

Ideas like the spaced-out mutant kangaroos, the sand-shower, the lethal water-sucking device and the holographic head-replacement are neat sci-fi trimmings, but it’s the sheer sense of punk disarray that speeds the film’s breathless 99 minutes on as if it were half that length.

Talalay only allows the Tank Girl character – known solely as ‘Rebecca’ in the film – one serious moment in the movie, which frugality makes that moment, in the final battle with Keslee, truly count.

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Tank Girl is a rare science-fiction film that weaves its environs around a solid core of shocking post-feminist fun; it wears any residual social agenda like gaudy ear-rings, for kicks.

I hope to see Tank Girl in the movies again, one way or another, and maybe the next version will stick nearer to the original; but sometimes a worthwhile piece of entertainment is launched only by its willingness to deviate and go where it will, and if Talalay’s first take on the character veered off the map a bit, it gave us a really fun journey, and, in doing so, stuck to the spirit of the original post-apocalyptic rebel herself.

Interview with Rachel Talalay