Rating: 3.5 Stars
The following review contains spoilers.
In a post-apocalyptic future in which a comet strike has changed Earth’s weather patterns to the point where it no longer rains, water has become the world’s most valuable commodity. An organization called Water & Power rules the wasteland with an iron fist, controlling all water, and thus all people. Small groups of rebels live on the fringes, siphoning water as best they can through illegal taps. One day Water & Power raids the compound where Rebecca, aka Tank Girl, lives and kills basically everyone, including her boyfriend and her pet ox. After the head of Water & Power, Kesslee, learns that Tank Girl killed eight of his men, he tries to recruit her, but she refuses to work for him.
When Water & Power plan to use Tank Girl as bait to find the Rippers, an underground group of vicious raiders that have been causing them trouble, she escapes, along with new friend Jet Girl. Together they’re determined both to recover Tank Girl’s friend Sam, a young girl who also survived the attack on her home, and generally cause trouble for Water & Power any way they can. They eventually meet and join up with the Rippers, who are revealed to be genetically-modified kangaroo-men, the result of an attempt to make the perfect soldier. With their help, they’re able to take the fight directly to Water & Power’s home base and shut down Kesslee once and for all.
The story is essentially about the battle of wills between Tank Girl and Kesslee, and it works for me. Our first scene with Kesslee shows him forcing one of his underlings to walk through glass after a failure, and then killing him for his weakness in agreeing to walk through glass in the first place. Kesslee is used to everyone doing what he says, but he doesn’t respect them for it. When Tank Girl refuses to submit to him, he becomes obsessed with her. No matter what he does, she won’t break. In one of the film’s best moments, Kesslee pulls Tank Girl out of a small tube she’s been imprisoned in, certain she’s finally ready to follow him, but she still just mocks him. In a moment of rage, he grabs a nearby guard’s gun and points it at her head, ready to end this. She smiles at him and says, “I win.”
When I first saw Tank Girl over 20 years ago, I hated it. Re-watching it now, I think it was way ahead of its time (or at least my time). Maybe it’s because I watch so many movies for this project that are not just bad, but boring, and perfunctory, and artless, but the clear love that was put into this film won me over. Tank Girl is like a highly-sexualized, psychedelic, Looney Tunes cartoon, with Tank Girl playing the part of Bugs Bunny. If at the end she pulled a giant hammer out of her pocket and hit Kesslee with it, it wouldn’t even register as strange.
There is so much style and verve in this film. It goes full comic book before going full comic book was cool, including many, many straight up panels from the comic, and entire cartoon sequences. Tank Girl and Jet Girl change clothes between almost every scene, which makes no sense but who cares, because they look cool. There’s a huge elaborate musical sequence in a brothel set to “Let’s Do It” that has no plot reason to exist, but it’s a delight. Overall the production design, costuming, and soundtrack are all great, and even the Rippers look pretty good (well, except in action scenes).
Even 24-years later, when it’s gotten very hard to make art that feels truly transgressive, Tank Girl still feels transgressive. I mean, she not only has sex with a kangaroo, but with a kangaroo that’s the reincarnation of a dog, so in a way it’s like double bestiality. That’s a thing that happens in a movie that got wide release.
Lori Petty was grown in a lab to play Tank Girl. Malcolm McDowell has played a thousand characters like Kesslee, but he’s effective. Naomi Watts somehow plays “mousy” as the repressed and abused Jet Girl, and is also effective. Odd that Ice-T gets such high billing when he’s not even one of the five most important characters, but he’s fine I guess.
“You gotta think about it like the first time you got laid. You just gotta go, ‘Daddy, are you sure this is right?’”
To say Tank Girl feels disjointed is an understatement. Scenes go from one to the next in a way that makes very little sense. I know I said some of that was a positive earlier, but in terms of following a plot and forming any kind of emotional connection with what’s actually happening, it’s a hindrance. One particular sequence that transitioned from Tank Girl and Jet Girl agreeing to run away together, to a cartoon where Tank Girl beats her up for no reason I could understand, to the two of them in some kind of junkyard learning Sam’s whereabouts from some random lady, was whiplash inducing. From the credits, I know the woman is named Sub Girl. So were they in a submarine? What?
Some of the action scenes are fine, but mostly they’re a weak spot. The Rippers in action look pretty bad (especially with the weird masks they wear), and in the end you can see the cables helping them jump and as well as those carrying the bad guys away when they get hit. Kesslee’s plan to use Tank Girl to lure the Rippers out of hiding also doesn’t make much sense when like seven Rippers easily dismantle his entire operation.
The Rippers have this whole backstory about some Dr. Prophet who taught them to believe in a better world, but it’s a little underbaked. We never see Dr. Prophet until he turns up dead. Also, for all their utopian dreams and insistence on a democratic society and heroic framing, they’re more than a little rapey whenever the Girls are around.