Is Barb Wire Actually an Overlooked ’90s Masterpiece?

Pamela Anderson headlined Barb Wire, an R-rated comic book movie from the 1990s. How does it hold up?

I like to write silly articles about terrible films, but I prefer to write silly articles that go on about how much I’ve enjoyed a film that most people wouldn’t bother with. Den of Geek will often send me odd films with rotten reputations and it’s always my hope that I’m going to get something like Chuck Norris’ Invasion U.S.A., which is kind of out there but also kind of brilliant. More often, though, I’ll end up with a Santa With Muscles or a Nick Fury: Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D. 

When I read silly film look backs that other people have written around the internet, I’ll sometimes come away with the impression that the person has set out to trash an easy target. Whether that’s the case or not, it’s something I’ve been very mindful of over the last few years. When I sit down to watch a film, be that film an Oscar contender or a straight-to-video offering from Steven Seagal, I give it a fair chance of a positive write up. I want to enjoy The Wolf Of Wall Street and I want to enjoy Kill Switch. My article will then reflect whether I was able to.

So when you’re reading this article about how terrible Barb Wire is, and it is a dreadful movie, be assured that Den of Geek is not just wading in on an easy target. I’d argue that as a rarely spoken of ’90s comic book movie, it’s the type of film Den of Geek is supposed to be reassessing, and I’d much rather you were reading about how much I enjoyed it. 

I’m not alone in not enjoying Barb Wire. When it was released, loads of people didn’t enjoy it. Of course, they didn’t make the mistake I made of seeing it. It was bad news for distributors Gramercy, who had banked on droves of, er, multiplex thrill seekers turning out for the film, but found it returning less than $4m from a fairly wide release.

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The movie experienced difficulties during production, with David Hogan brought in to replace director Adam Rifkin during shooting, allegedly due to the quality of the film he was making. In an interview with website Train Wreckd Society, replacement director Hogan noted of the job “…the pay wasn’t bad.” The script was written by first time writer Ilene Chaiken, who has gone on to have a solid career as a TV writer, and former Navy Seal Chuck Pfarrer, who had previously written, amongst other films, the movie Navy Seals.

It’s based on the Dark Horse comic series of the same name (although the character had featured in earlier collections), which is better than the movie. The comic series is a lot more colorful than the movie, with more sci-fi to it. That said, I read a bunch of issues for this article and I’m not entirely sure I see what inspired anyone to adapt it for the big screen.

Barb Wire starts with a crawling, scene setting text which is important and you should totally read it (although if you don’t it’s fine as a voice over gives us all of the same information again less than 10 minutes later). Then the film itself happens. It’s about Barb Wire, played by Pamela Anderson, who owns and runs a bar while also being the deadliest and best bounty hunter in the world in the future. With the USA in the throes of a civil war, Barb finds herself mixed up in a conflict over who gets to use some special robo-contact lenses that are part of several people’s plans to sneak into Canada. Barb usually likes to stay neutral but with bodies piling up she finds herself forced to pick a side. 

The opening scene in Barb Wire sees the titular character performing a sexy dance in a plush strip club for a small crowd of men. She’s half undressed and she’s being sprayed with champagne. One member of the crowd shouts grotty comments at her. Then he calls her babe. Barb tells him not to call her babe and stabs him in the face with the heel of her shoe. 

This might sound like a miserable way of introducing your hero, and it is. It isn’t even important, as there’s a better sequence that establishes Barb as a fearsome and skilful bounty hunter shortly after, as this one goes on to do (the second part of this opening sequence features Barb rescuing a school girl from the meat locker in the back of a strip club using only her cunning and a blow dart). It slows down a film that is far too slow to start and makes for uncomfortable viewing. If you really felt your audience needed immediate nudity you’d have been just as well off handing out a ‘Knockers and Whatnot’ flip book at the door of the cinema. It would have been classier.

Five minutes into Barb Wire, then, and I’ve had Pamela Anderson’s champagne soaked nipples thrust into my face, seen a rowdy man being stabbed in the forehead with a shoe for referring to the films hero as ‘babe’ while he screeches sexually demeaning comments at her and, worst of all, I’ve had the spine chilling realization that I’ve committed to watching this film for another 90 minutes. Shit. 

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We’ll come back to Barb Wire’s sexual ineptitude in a bit, as there’s too much of it to get through in one sitting. Also, there are some other points I’d like to cover, and I think if I hold some of the sexy content back you’re all more likely to stick around until we get to it.

Right then. Let’s talk about Casablanca.

A brief look at the IMDb page for Barb Wire will a) reveal the extent of my research, and b) raise the suggestion that Barb Wire is actually a remake of Casablanca. Obviously that’s ridiculous, and a sign that the IMDb is not a reliable source, but I took this as a prompt to finally getting around to watching Casablanca and holy shit, it turns out that it is. Anderson’s Barb Wire is the Humphrey Bogart Rick role, and her ex-partner Axel rolls into town with his new partner, they sort of reconnect but he needs her to help him and his new partner for the good of a cause that may end the war. The broad story points and rough versions of the characters are lifted straight from 1942 classic.

Can you imagine turning up to a project meeting for an action movie that will star Pamela Anderson having not done any prep work, pulling ‘let’s just do a remake of Casablanca’ out of your arse and then keeping your job? I don’t know who, but someone lived that dream in 1996.

This may be the most controversial thing you ever read on Den of Geek, so I advise you to make sure you’re sitting down before you get to the next sentence. Casablanca is better than Barb Wire. Everyone alright? Good. It’s genuinely weird that two films can have so much in common and yet one is brilliant and the other is almost unwatchable. 

Star Anderson’s lead turn is an odd one. She delivers every line of dialogue like it’s a withering put down or a snappy retort, but it never is. It’s generally just bad dialogue. This particular exchange caught my ear:

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Man spots Barb Wire in an area of the strip club she shouldn’t be in. She is holding a cigarette. Barb Wire: Looking for a light. Got one?Man: I don’t smoke.Cigarette turns out to be a tube. Barb huffs into it, firing a blow dart. Man collapses.Barb Wire: Neither do I.

Then there’s this one:

Schmidts has paid Barb for a bounty hunting job. He notes that working with her has been a pleasure.Barb Wire: If it had been a pleasure I would have charged more.ME, shouting at my television: Why? And why wouldn’t you believe that he had enjoyed working with you? You’ve been really helpful and pleasant; you’ve just put on a grumpy voice. What are you even talking about?

If you were to take Pamela Anderson out of the film and replace her with anyone else, it’s still going to be a terrible movie. That said, I’ve read through my notes a few times and I haven’t found any compliments for her performance. She’s sort of doing a Bogart impression but, as with all the other things clumsily aped from Casablanca, it isn’t very good. It’s all very one note.

Of course, the main character doesn’t work, regardless of Anderson. She’s boring and doesn’t have any flaws, which forces what emotion may have appeared in the character out of the performance, and there aren’t any good or interesting supporting characters to help her carry the film. So, Anderson is poor but it’s not a make or break issue.

This film was supposed to launch Pamela Anderson as a movie star. She was already a pop culture figure, having featured in Playboy magazine, appeared in a regular role in television sitcom Home Improvement and become a star as a lead character in Baywatch. In 1996, the same year Barb Wire was released, Virgin Cola used her figure as the inspiration behind the remodelling of their bottles, which they dubbed The Pammy.

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That might sound weird now, but at the time… no, it was weird then, too. With all the money, power and influence that billionaire mogul and Virgin Cola owner Richard Branson had, it’s hard to understand how he settled on using those resources to launch a campaign aimed at proving to the world that soft drink bottles can have large breasts.

Right, onto the Barb Wire baddies. Some of the villains in Barb Wire have uniforms that make them look like space Nazis, which is another nod to Casablanca. Not the space part, obviously, although that does suggest a film with an opening scene where Humphrey Bogart strips while being sprayed with champagne in space by intergalactic creepazoids.

Anyway, in one strange scene these space Nazis are milling around in the background while the film’s main villain, Col. Barelyacharacter, tortures information out of a young woman. She’s strapped to a table, wearing a skimpy electro-bikini-tech-cyber-whatsit, while a computer reads her thoughts and shocks her. It all takes place in a futuristic laboratory that’s in a sort of boxing ring. There are a lot of choices being made in this sexy space torture scene.

We might debate the quality of those choices, and it seems like the odds of every choice being wrong would be unfavourable when you’re making this many of them. But as far as quantity goes, they are making a lot of choices. It’s all very busy.

For another head-scratcher, we can check out an earlier action sequence that sees the police attack a suspicious car. They lure the driver and passenger out onto the street and then kill them, while two other passengers sneak out of the backseat and escape. The baddies suspect there are more people in the car, though, and so rather than, you know, looking in it, they open fire.

The car is empty, and they’re attacking it from both sides, so as well as pumping bullet after bullet into an empty car, they’re also accidentally having a shootout amongst themselves for an audience of two people that they’ve just killed. I don’t remember that bit being in Casablanca

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I’m pleased to say I do have something to praise. It’s the production design. For the most part, the film looks good, if odd. The sets are generally nicely detailed and make the film feel bigger than it is. The club, in particular, looks cool and is usually full of fantastically dressed extras. They have a band that is always playing in the club, and if I were gambling man, I’d say that representatives from the film studio and the band’s record label may have had lunch at some point. They couldn’t look more like product placement if they were called Vanessa Cola-Virgin and the Virgin Cola 5.

The stuff that happens in the club, though, is not good. One particular scene opens with an establishing shot, setting this up as a separate sequence. Then a guy, who only features in this scene, comes in drunk and aggressively demands a drink. This takes place 35 minutes into the film, with the story still not moving at all, and exists entirely so a dog can bite a guy in the crotch. That would be like me stopping now to write a paragraph about TV biker drama Sons Of Anarchy, assuming that at some point in the series a wild dog had chased down Tig, jumped up onto his bike and set about gnawing off his gonads. While the scene is frustrating (the Barb Wire one, not the Sons Of Anarchy one I made up), I’ve covered it here as it serves as an example of the baffling and confusing way Barb Wire is constructed. A film this silly would have benefited from some momentum, but it typically stops to do things with no bearing on the plot. For a film that runs shorter than a hundred minutes, it plays as far too long.

The flashback scene, where we see Barb in the war, is another example of this, in that it’s unnecessary and deflating. It’s also gruesomely poor. It’s just a crap looking chunk of cliché clumsily dumped into a film that was already dragging. It serves to make the characters less interesting. When we see a mysterious badass we assume they got to where they are doing something cool, whereas here we find out everyone was boring forever.

The big action finale is… I don’t know. I think it’s terrible. The thing is, I’ve seen it twice in preparing to write this article, but both times I’ve seen it I’ve just sat through an hour and a half of Barb Wire and I felt really, really done. Maybe the whole thing has a camp quality to it? I can only report on what I did see, and I didn’t see anything in the big finale or really at any point in the film that I could understand someone enjoying.

Right, I promised you guys sex stuff to finish up with. Much like Barb Wire, I am not going to deliver because for all its leather and fetish gear and silhouetted nipples, the film is weirdly sexless. It sort of hints at fetishism and debauchery, but when pressed it doesn’t seem to know what they are. It’s like a 12 year old shouting rude words to be provocative, or Steve Carrell describing a breast as feeling like a bag of sand in The 40 Year Old Virgin. It’s just making a scene and grabbing itself; in that respect, Barb Wire is a masturbating chimp of a film. It’s the sort of film that would cause Michael Bay to roll his eyes.

Of course, unlike Bay’s recent films, Barb Wire was rated R in the cinemas, so the teenage boys we might assume the film was made for were largely unable to see it. So it seems Barb Wire was targeted at adults who have the same attitude towards sex as teenage boys. Reading that sentence back I can actually see why they thought this movie would make more money than it did.

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Barb Wire is chaotic and dull. One of the reasons I don’t like mean spirited articles is that there’s always a chance someone involved in making the film will read the article, and maybe they worked really hard on it and my words end up making them feel bad. If that’s you, you should know that I get it. I wanted this article to be silly, but I also wanted to offer some genuine criticism of the film and then I also wanted to contextualise all of my comments by giving you an idea of who I am, and it’s ended up a bit disorganised and uneven in tone. So I get throwing a load of stuff together that doesn’t really work and ending up with something chaotic.

Barb Wire, then, is a post-apocalyptic rip-off of Casablanca starring Pamela Anderson made for an imagined mob of unambitious perverts.