My Year Of Flops Case File # 45 Tank Girl
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Throughout the nineties corporations embarked on an exhaustive search for subcultures to exploit. A giddy mania for co-option reigned as cool hunters sought out the crudely Xeroxed gig flyers and artlessly stapled zines that might lead them to the next underground goldmine. They were searching for Nirvana, literally and figuratively, and were willing to shell out big bucks in their quest for the next big thing.
MGM/UA felt they'd found just that in Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl, a playfully post-modern, pop-culture-obsessed British cult comic strip/book/graphic novel about a girl, her mutated kangaroo boyfriend and giant metallic phallus of a tank. The character quickly became an icon in the burgeoning riot grrrl movement, though I strongly suspect that the term "Riot Grrrl" is one of those annoying buzzwords that are considered ludicrous, insulting and reductive mere seconds after first being coined. Apparently the nineties created a massive groundswell of women so enraged by the corrupt patriarchy that they took to emulating the linguistic quirks of noted feminist icon Tony The Tiger. Needless to say, these riot gals found sexism, impossible beauty standards and gender inequality to be far from "grrreat".
Tank Girl director Rachel Talalay set out to make "the ultimate grrrl movie" though it's unclear whether she meant riot grrrl flick or Girl-Powered joint. Girl-Power, of course, is like feminism, only with fewer ideas and more push-up bras. Where the Riot Grrrl movement was identified strongly in the media with bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, Girl Power was embodied by those lovable harlots in The Spice Girls, at least three of whom auditioned unsuccessfully to play Tank Girl in the inevitable film adaptation. Talalay instead cast Emily Lloyd, one of those strange "It girls" more famous for the roles they won, then lost (the Juliette Lewis role in Husbands And Wives, Winona Ryder's part in Mermaids and the lead in Tank Girl) than the parts they ended up playing. Lloyd parted ways with the filmmakers after refusing to shave her head for the role, which is a damned shame for her and for the film. Instead of rocketing to Lori Petty-like super-stardom she was resigned to a career of Emily Lloyd-like obscurity.
A quick digression on labels: they suck. They're insulting. They're reductive by definition. They're cynical ploys by the media to reduce complex movements and sophisticated ideas into catchy little categories and obnoxious buzzwords. Yet as a writer I find labels to be a necessary evil. Also, as a longtime member of the media I share your withering contempt for the Fourth Estate. Fucking media. Always with their silly labels.
As Petty's in-your-face, totally studio-mandated opening narration informs us Tank Girl takes place in a desolate future in which water is such a precious, rare resource that the company that controls it functions as an ad hoc Fascist state, complete with dispiriting work camps where Lori Petty's sassy agent provocateur meets her mousy sidekick, Naomi Watts.
Petty and Watts eventually bust out and end up at an elaborate future-brothel where, with deadening predictability, an elaborate song and dance number set to Cole Porter's "Let's Do It" breaks out and Petty prevents a pre-pubescent pal from being molested by weasel-faced john Iggy Pop.
Then Tank Girl heads in an even more predictable direction when the gals fall into the hands of The Rippers, an aggregation of loopy misfits who remind me a lot of my housemates back in my collegiate co-op days except for the whole part about the Rippers being genetically modified kangaroo super-soldiers. For the record my housemates were genetically modified koala super-soldiers. Big difference.
It is during the Ripper sequences that Tank Girl finally begins to come into its own. Any by "come into its own" I of course mean "begins to suck less egregiously". Technically and creatively The Rippers are an ingenious creation, from their creepily, endearingly expressive tails and ears to their loopy personalities. Petty falls for a lovable hippie goofball named Booga, proving the old adage that once you have sex with a genetically modified Kangaroo they'll be the only ones you wanna screw. The Rippers were designed by the great Stan Winston, who dug the project and his creations so much he worked at half his usual rate.
Ice-T's presence was played up in the film's advertising, which was both counter-productive and misleading for Ice-T isn't the star of Tank Girl. Heck, he's not even the star of the Rippers sequences. That'd be Booga and a Ripper soul brother who speaks in velvety cadences that are part Barry White, half street corner pimp.
T does however deserves credit for dramatically expanding his range from glowering tough guys to glowering tough guys who are also genetically engineered Kangaroo super-soldiers.
Tank Girl fell into a weird limbo: it was too slick and expensive to be a scruffy underdog yet not slick or expensive enough to compete with the big boys. It boasts production values gaudy enough to engender cries of "Sellout!" among longtime Tank Girls die-hards yet was too scruffy and weird to have a shot with the Jerry Bruckheimer crowd.
Since Tank Girl's comedy is largely dependent on randomness and aggression it falls upon Petty to anchor the film. In order for Tank Girl to succeed filmgoers had to fall in love with Petty the way legions of comic book nerds developed hopeless geek-crushes on her pen and ink incarnation. Alas Petty is less sassy and endearing than shrill and obnoxious, a grating tomboy too infatuated with herself to be a feasible object of desire. Instead of a distaff Sid Vicious, Petty's X-treme!ly annoying performance suggests a cross-dressing David Arquette after a dozen Red Bulls. Instead of a big break Tank Girl essentially killed Petty's career, though in this instance it was more of a mercy slaying.
Like far too much attitude-driven fare this seems to labor under the delusion that it's never enough to merely try. No, in order to really succeed a film must indeed try way the fuck too hard. Tank Girl consequently is less fun than FUN!!!!!!!!!!! Fun is what makes life so enjoyable. FUN!!!!!!!!!!!! however has been known to cause migraine headaches in large doses. Tank Girl crams FUN!!!!!!!!!!!! down audience's throats in potentially lethal doses.
Sure Tank Girl has a lot of energy but then so does a Pixie Stix-addled eleven-year-old screaming in your ear about the intricacies of Pokemon for hours at a time during a cross-country road trip. That doesn't mean either ordeal should be experienced by any reasonable human except perhaps as a form of torture.
One final thought (and no, it does not involve fucking a fish): if everyone's so obsessed with H20 in this Waterless World of the future why don't they just drink their own filtered urine? That kind of innovative, audacious twist would really kill with audiences. I just know it.Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco