Comic Book Movies 101: Tank Girl

Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett’s trail-blazing Grrrl Zeitgeist comic character gets the big screen treatment in a pretty liberal and commercially disappointing movie adaptation directed by Rachel Talalay.


Ah Tank Girl….

Tank Girl….I love thee Tank Girl, you saucy little minx!!

Firstly and without any hesitation, I’ll cut to the chase and state for the record that I’ve always kinda loved this movie. I have a very soft spot for it and feel that it was much maligned and misunderstood, and therefore somewhat underrated. Having said that, I also think I understand why it bombed so bad that it pretty much took Tank Girl off the comic shelves let alone never to return to our cinema screens.

Secondly, and this could be very key; I wasn’t much of a comic book reader of Deadline or anything else back in the day. I had kinda grown out of comics before Martin and Hewlett’s creation really made its mark, so sort of missed it until the hype surrounding the upcoming movie version brought the Tank Girl (TG) iconography to a much wider audience which included my 24 year old ‘Cyberdog’ former self. If I’m honest, this can’t help but mean that I’m going to be a little biased or at least more forgiving towards the movie in a way that an avid Deadline reader most certainly wouldn’t be.

Now then, all that being said, let’s get down to business shall we?

As we all should know so well by now, the comic book adaptation movie is a genre fraught with pitfalls. It seems that as a very general rule, the success of an adaptation is proportional to the popularity and ‘household name’ value of the comic character in question. The Supermans, Batmans and Spider-mans of this world can survive the odd cinematic misfire (and indeed have) as the characters are perennial and indelibly etched into a general and widespread demographic. Sooner or later someone will try again and bring the character back. Less well known characters may not get such a lifeline. In my opinion, any movie adaptation of Tank Girl was doomed to be a one shot, win or lose, love it or hate it affair. Any genre movie that takes this nutty a character and this bold a stylistic approach, then scoffs at the filmmaker’s rulebook, laughs at its own budget limitations, jams every technique affordable into itself and makes no apologies for it, is going to run into trouble. Then if the production budget is high enough, and the studio execs interfere, and the end result a bit of an acquired taste or a little patchy or unfocused, you’ve got big problems. Even on a reasonably modest $25 million dollar budget, significant box-office returns are required just to break even. Tank Girl didn’t even come close. Perhaps it’s easy to see why. After all, dedicated followers of the comic book will almost certainly be at best polarised one way or another, but could just as easily hate any movie version of their beloved character en masse. With the Americanisation of the screenplay and title character, I’d say that was a given. Similarly, casual viewers not at all au fait with the comic could also be put off by such a kooky approach. It is with this thought in mind that I feel the actual result onscreen was at least 20 per cent better than it ought to have been. It has a good heart and perhaps didn’t deserve to tank (excuse the pun) quite as badly as it did.

So on to the film itself. Well, it’s certainly a delightful mess. Or just a mess if you’re not a fan.

The casting is a hit and miss affair, but on the whole pretty good. No real clangers. On the plus side (and I realise this is subjective), we have Tank Girl herself Rebecca Buck played with verve and zesty appeal by Lori Petty (where are you now babe?). I really liked how Petty interpreted the character (sorry comic fans). She strikes an entertaining line between wise-cracking comic zaniness and kick-ass physicality as well as what you could describe as an alluring 90s cyber-punk sexual ambiguity. The comic Tank Girl is much more boyishly styled and definitively bi-sexual and at least in my subjective opinion as a man, a little less sexually appealing than Petty’s version (the fact I’m comparing a drawing with a real woman is noted, and I’m choosing to ignore it). Watching her again now, I have to admit Petty can seem a little on the harsh side, particularly in scenes with the much softer featured Jet Girl (maybe I’m just getting old).

Speaking of Jet Girl, we have a nicely understated and attractive ‘before she was famous’ performance from Naomi Watts in the role. Watts impresses with the whole shy, frumpy mechanic who’s actually a total babe transformation routine, and her performance is a natural counterbalance to Petty’s OTT antics. Weirdly, I’m not really a big fan of Watts now, but I sure had the hots for her way back then as Jet Girl. Perhaps I was imagining all manner of sexy shenanigans with me, Jet, Tank and a bag of marshmallows…. Ahem! Sorry.

Moving swiftly on, we have a solid (if oft regurgitated) bad guy turn from serial-nutter Malcolm McDowell as Kesslee, the leader of evil mega corporation Water & Power. McDowell’s performance divides opinion. In all honesty he’s one of those actors whose talents always seem to have straddled the dividing line between terribly great and greatly terrible (so to speak). Personally I quite like his brand of British bad guy shtick, but am neither surprised nor offended when others don’t. He’s one of those now perennial British bad guy actors that everybody remembers as a young man thanks to A Clockwork Orange and Britannia Hospital, but subjectively seems to have been old and white-haired in just about everything else you can think of. My favourite line of his has to be at the end of his first scene. He takes a long glug on the fresh water he ‘s just gruesomely and fatally extracted from the poor unfortunate schlub that just pissed him off; then pauses for maximum effect while his grossed-out and stunned subordinates look on. He swallows, and then comes the perfectly delivered “lovely!” It cracks me up every time. For me, his character peaks right there.

Definitely on the minus side of the casting ledger was the decision to hire Ice-T as one of the Rippers (the fearsome but nice-once-you-get-to-know-them group of kangaroo mutant warriors). Most of the other Ripper characters are quite appealing and cover a wide range of personality types, but Ice-T is very much Ice-T. There he is doing his thing, and even though he’s under a lot of prosthetics (Stan Winston designed by the way), the producers ensured that his Ripper exhibited many of T’s trademark details and somehow still looked like him. I’ve never been a huge fan of this type of casting. I’ve mentioned this analogy before but it’s like having someone like Grace Jones in your movie. You hire her for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to be Grace Jones in your movie. She can’t do anything else. Ice-T at least here, is hired to semi-parody himself, but for me it strains the suspension of disbelief in a way I don’t like. The only upside is that his character traits are the source of playful ridicule from the others, and as I said; you get a sense of Ice-T being in on the joke and not taking himself seriously at all (he’s a kangaroo mutant after all). Other folks in the movie are vanilla enough to not be offensive in any way, so let’s move on.

Ok, I’m not gonna really try and tell you what the movie is about as hopefully you’ve seen it. Also judging by the completely potty, silly, irrational, unlikely or just plain kooky character decisions that Petty and co make at the worst possible times, it would seem that plot isn’t as important as looking good, having fun and generally being a bit zany. I mean there’s a full-on attention generating, completely inexplicable song and dance number right when they should be keeping a low profile and getting on with the task at hand (saving the little girl from prostitution). In a nutshell, once character introductions and motives are established, our two gals meet, and eventually team up with the aforementioned Kanga-killers to do battle with Kesslee’s evil Water & Power company forces. W&P’s agenda is of course to control all the water (as it never rains anymore) and eradicate the Rippers. Some action ensues, but again it always seems secondary to the fun and larking about. Tank Girl eventually kills Kesslee, presumably bringing W&P down with him (although this isn’t detailed), and then shacks up with one of the Rippers.

The movie ends with the last of its several animated montages and herein lies one of the undeniable problems Tank Girl has with having only a modest £25m budget to play with. It’s a longstanding movie trick to try and save money in places where the audience will least notice it, and even the most expensive movies do it. I’m sure the makers of Tank Girl would tell you they used the idea of doing certain montages in comic style panel animation as a stylistic device to quickly and groovily get from point A to point C without lingering too long around boring old point B. They would also say perhaps that they were attempting to emulate some of the anarchy and disarray of the comic book. The trouble is: it’s a little too obvious that point B always tends to be something that the budget could never have stretched to filming convincingly in live action anyway. And so it follows that these very scenes are actually things the viewer feels a bit short-changed about not getting for real (so to speak).

I’ll admit that the film has trouble hanging together. Actually it doesn’t really hang together at all. It seems quite short but actually isn’t (due maybe to the lack of plot and those animated segues in place of action set-pieces). As mentioned before, it’s completely bonkers and doesn’t really try to make sense. In the whole film, only Tank Girl has a legitimate motivation for some of her actions (trying to save Sam, the young girl in her care at the beginning of the movie), with pretty much everyone else’s arcs being rather contrived most of the time. Probably the biggest, strangest thing about it is that there’s not a huge amount of actual ‘Tank’ in the movie. In that respect it does play like an origin story, in that our gal Rebecca meets the tank maybe halfway in.

It seems to me like there were two disparate agendas at work on this movie. One side was trying to make a Tank Girl movie, with all the humour, anarchy, disorganisation and wackiness of the comic, and the other side were trying to make a by-the-numbers comic book action movie. The end result is slightly awkward in its own skin, and doesn’t quite achieve either objective.

Despite all that I do still feel there is a good heart beating within this film, and watching it again was an enjoyable and entertaining ride. I would love to give the movie three or more stars but realistically it’s a two-and-a-half. But I still love it, and am happy it sits in my DVD collection.

Now let’s rewind and watch that brilliant Kesslee line again: “Lovely”.

Ben Pegley

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