Tank Girl (Review)
Written by Tedi Sarafian, Alan Martin, and Jamie Hewlett
Directed by Rachel Talalay
1995 was a banner year for British comics to be converted into big budget American films that did awful at the box office. Both Judge Dredd and Tank Girl came and went with only critical and financial failure to remember them by (Tank Girl also succeeded in bringing down the publisher that originated the comics!) Sometimes films don’t find their audience until years later. Tank Girl‘s energy, charisma, and throw everything at the wall style of film making is perfect for modern audiences raised in an era of ADD entertainment.
Tank Girl is a film filled with energy. It constantly races from scene to scene, rarely stopping to catch a breath, and skipping from genre to genre. Elements of action, comedy, animation, and horror collide. At one point there is even a big musical number! Tank Girl features action sequences that are loaded with gags, and seems well aware at how ridiculous it is. If anything, Tank Girl revels in it’s unseriousness, joyfully becoming a live action cartoon that flies in the face of modern “dark and gritty” takes on comic characters. Tank Girl herself is a wise-cracking punk rocker, who has never met an authority figure she hasn’t rebelled against.
Tank Girl first appeared in print in the magazine Deadline, the strip a creation of Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin. Tank Girl soon became popular with counter-culture movements, outstripping the popularity of Deadline and resulting in the publication of collected works, which drew in more fans. Hewlett and Martin sold the rights to make a film thinking the worst that could happen was a campy film. Deadline leveraged itself heavily into the success of the Tank Girl film (which led to the magazine’s demise when the movie failed!) Hewlett and Martin were barely consulted while the film was in production, became annoyed at the studio suits debating on what cool was, and then were called in at the last minute by Rachel Talalay to help salvage the film by providing a bunch of drawings to use as interstitials. Jamie Hewlett would go on to co-create the music group Gorillaz with Damon Albarn, while Alan Martin eventually wrote more Tank Girl stories. Both creators are still sore over their experiences.
The cult audience of Tank Girl extended to Rachel Talalay, at the time best know for producing several John Waters pictures. She helped push a film adaptation as “the ultimate grrrrl movie.” As the studio suits were almost exclusively older men, heads were butted from before the film lensed to through painful focus group after focus group. The increasingly desperate shooting schedule (suffering from being behind schedule) resulted in additional compromises, and the major edits both enhanced the manic weird energy and were obvious rewrites with desperate bridging animation/artwork that only added confusion.
Tank Girl takes place in the post-apocalyptic year of 2033, 11 years after a comet struck the Earth and played havoc with the ecosystem. It hasn’t rained since, and a brutal monopolistic organization called Water & Power controls the world’s water supply. Rebecca – hereafter referred to as Tank Girl – lives on the fringes of society, in a communal home that steals water to grow food to survive. The only serious threat to Water & Power are mysterious monsters known as “The Rippers”, of which no one has seen and survived.
Tank Girl is tough. Years of living in a wasteland have made her independent and fierce, while the destruction of society has ramped up her youthful nostalgia into a type of reverence of the past. Pop culture references are dropped constantly in Tank Girl’s conversation, and an undercurrent of sexuality is omnipresent. Tank Girl’s attitude is her power, her loyalty to her female friends create a sisterhood.
Tank Girl is openly sexual in a joy of sexuality way. There is not a hint of ridicule at Tank Girl for being and acting vulgar, it is so ingrained in her personality that without it lessens the film. Tank Girl even attempted to recreate her relationship with the mutant kangaroo Booga, though scenes of them sharing a bed together joined many others on the cutting room floor.
There is no subtlety when it comes to the sexual imagery, Tank Girl’s first sighting of the tank is set to Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft”, and Tank Girl herself fondles the long barrel of the primary weapon. During a battle later in the film, she’s riding said barrel while attacking villains, and making jokes about their manhood size. The entire security squad for W&P are males, all armed with guns, all defeated by Tank Girl and her much larger phallic weapon
Most of the male characters from W&P are lecherous, and their sexual advances are unwanted by all. If a woman is interested in a male character, it is made abundantly clear. A visit to a sleazy adult entertainment club run by a Madam shows the Madam selling the underage Sam to a pedophile, who receives a world of pain for his perversion. The scene is interesting because it runs in complete opposite to a scene in Kick-Ass, where an underage girl dresses as a schoolgirl who then murders people, which is done entirely because it pushes the boundaries of titillation. Tank Girl herself is so outraged she takes over the club and forces the Madam to sing the aforementioned musical number.
Rebecca/Tank Girl’s boyfriend (and a few briefly seen other males in the compound in the beginning) are the only males in the film that aren’t disgusting or mutant kangaroos. They are quickly murdered by the villains. One fan theory as to Tank Girl’s continual efforts to rescue Sam is that Sam is the daughter of her murdered boyfriend. This fits in with the displays of loyalty Tank Girl shows throughout the film to her friends.
Water & Power is lead by Kesslee, played by Malcolm McDowell, who continues to pull pieces of Tank Girl‘s sets out of his teeth to this day. Kesslee is the type of megalomaniacal despot that destroys his own command room and murders his own man just because they only control most but not all of the desert. Kesslee’s favorite toy is a device that is stabbed into its victim, then sucks the water out into an ever-expanding container as the body is dessicated. Of course, you must immediately drink the water from the victim to show how evil you are. Kesslee wants total domination, and Rebecca/Tank Girl’s rejection of his authority is an affront to his masculinity. He decides breaking her will be fun, and attempts to do so through various harsh conditions and torture methods, all of which just provide Tank Girl with sources of insults to Kesslee. After being horribly maimed during a Ripper attack, Kesslee is modified into a cyborg, with one of the weirdest cybernetic gimmicks in film.
While Tank Girl is rebellious and extroverted, Jet Girl is the polar opposite. A reserved slave of W&P, she’s introduced as a brilliant equipment mechanic who is also the target of one of the W&P’s chief general’s sexual harassment interest. She refuses to give into his advances, but that’s the limit of her convictions until Tank Girl stumbles into her life, first by saving her from sexual assault, and later by bugging her enough that she grows attached to her and uncharacteristically rebels to help her. The two become fast friends in the wilds, Tank Girl dragging Jet along, who becomes more open and assertive as the film progresses, influenced by Tank Girl’s attitude.
The Rippers are introduced as a monstrous force that haunts the desert, unseen creatures that cut a swath of destruction. Later, the reveal is these monsters are genetically engineered kangaroo men, bred as soldiers and now fighting for survival against Water & Power. The Rippers are all “reincarnated” – though this concept isn’t used except to make one character speak like “Jack Kerouac” Also Ice-T’s Ripper is a reincarnated cop, which allows me to declare Tank Girl a sequel to Law & Order: SVU. Ice-T’s T-Saint spends much of the film brooding and having an attitude about everything. He’s a sourpuss that the other Rippers work around, but he’s also loyal to his brothers and accepts their voting rules, even if he disagrees with the outcomes.
The Ripper effects were created by Stan Winston’s studio, which was such a big fan of the work and of the film’s potential they offered much discounted rates – without with the film would have not been able to afford them. To be honest they look sort of weird, but also cool, fitting with the tone of the film. In modern cinema, the effects would have been rendered with CGI enhancements, which would have stood out like a sore thumb in the rest of the low-budget Tank Girl‘s art decoration. Model work is also seen with jets and W&P bases, Tank Girl seemingly rebelling against CGI before it became mainstream.
Booga displays a childlike innocence, an endearing quality explained that he is the reincarnation of a dog. Of all the Rippers, he is the one that Tank Girl connects with. Booga displays similar traits – loyalty and immaturity – that make him a match. Tank Girl isn’t the sort to be subservient in a relationship. Tank Girl is always in control, and Booga seems fine with being her loyal lapdog (He is, after all, a reincarnated dog!)
To incentivize the final battle, both Tank Girl and the Rippers have to have skin in the game. Tank Girl suffers from her friend Sam being kidnapped again by Water & Power, while the Rippers find their creator Johnny Prophet murdered by Water & Power, and vow revenge.
The seemingly straightforward underlying plot beneath all the random jokes, action sequences, and musical numbers helps keep the audience on track and focused. Despite those steps, some couldn’t keep up with all the happenings. Audiences were confused upon watching Tank Girl, but none so much as the maligned test screening audiences, who didn’t seem to understand anything. An interview from Talalay reveals her frustration with the group and the studio’s reliance on them. Several of the changes that were mandated were subsequently complained about by later test audiences, but by then it was too late to revert back.
The scramble to cover up the edits by throwing in a bunch of animation just adds to the frantic randomness of Tank Girl. The crazed atmosphere of Tank Girl is a sight to behold, an experience that few films can match. A fun feminist action romp with practical effects, frenetic pace, wise-cracking heroine, and Cole Porter, Tank Girl deserves a place on every must-watch list!