Before Capes Were Cool #13: Tank Girl (1995)

(Part Two of a four-part look at the 1990s’ attempt to transform niche indie comic book heroes into Hollywood blockbusters.)

Last time, we looked at 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles adaptation, which was critically derided at the time of its original release as just another cog in the insidious Ninja Turtle Marketing Machine, but has since undergone a more favorable re-evaluation. I ventured that the reason TMNT holds up so well is that it was a carefully considered mixture of the comparatively edgy comics and the kid-friendly cartoon, resulting in a hybrid form that actually works better than either of its sources.

Tank Girl was an attempt to do something similar: take the nervy energy of a bold, edgy indie comic and sand down just enough of the rough edges to make the thing a little more palatable for general audiences. But rather than bringing out the best elements of the original vision on one hand and Hollywood filmmaking on the other, it ended up being a compromise that left neither comics fans nor the moviegoing public very happy. But, when all is said and done, it’s a hell of a lot better than you’d think a Hollywood version of Tank Girl would have any chance to be.

Director Rachel Talalay had nothing but good intentions. She became a fan of the character while making Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. The original comics, appearing in the British magazine Deadline, were anarchic, irreverent, hyperviolent strips of a couple of pages apiece, showcasing the twisted, distinctly English humor of writer Alan Martin and the lively, grimy linework of artist Jamie Hewlett.1  Talalay saw in Tank Girl a potential feminist icon action hero for the ’90s: an unapologetically aggressive badass who didn’t adhere to traditional norms of fashion and beauty and who possessed a frank sexuality. It might not be too surprising that Talalay got a major Hollywood studio to see the value in the outré Tank Girl concept; it was the ’90s, if you remember, and corporations tried to project iconoclasm and authenticity to appeal to the cynical “MTV generation.”2 They just…didn’t want to go too far. They’d make this weird countercultural thing they didn’t totally understand, but there would have to be limits and compromises.

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And right away you see the problems in adapting Tank Girl to the screen, because a film studio somewhat reasonably expects a movie to have a plot, and Tank Girl the comic has no plot. Not really, anyway. There’s minimal setup about her being a kind of freelance bounty hunter/mercenary/outlaw in a wasteland future Australia, but the original comics were never intended to have a thought-out, ongoing narrative; it was just a loose structure to hang transgressive jokes and bold artwork on. So Tank Girl the movie had to invent its own world and its own stakes and a reason for the main character to go places. And immediately, you lose some of the anarchy of the concept when you have to stuff it into a straightforward Wild West kind of narrative; Tank Girl is no longer an almost context-free Bugs Bunny kind of figure who is who she is because that’s who she is, but a struggling survivor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where water is a precious commodity, avenging the death of her boyfriend and rescuing a little girl.3 In the comics, Booga is a mutant man-kangaroo mostly because why not? In the movie, Booga and his fellow Rippers have an origin and motivation and real feelings. While a team of humanoid kangaroo super-soldiers who recite beat poetry in a bowling alley still reads as sufficiently “wacky” and out-there, it’s a much different thing.

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It will not surprise you to learn there was a lot of studio interference on this. They cut out scenes because the studio thought they made the heroine look too undignified or too unattractive or too provocative. You were supposed to see Booga’s dick, originally; needless to say, it does not appear in the final film. Every time you see something genuinely transgressive make it to screen, you wonder whether something else had to get cut as a compromise. But, like I say, it’s a testament to Talalay that she managed to get enough of at least the superficial spirit and aesthetics of Martin and Hewlett past studio execs who were mostly concerned with whether Tank Girl’s bedroom needs to contain quite so many dildos. It wears its comic influence on its sleeve, using original drawings and animation as scene transitions (and in some cases, in lieu of actually filming plot points in live-action).

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While Lori Petty has to plug in emotions and motivation into a character never really designed to accommodate those things, she’s an amazing lead in this film. She delivers a totally unrestrained performance, as big as she needs to be without fear. She projects a person who is utterly comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks of her. But Petty’s voice has a certain childlike quality to it that perhaps tones the character down a bit for a mass audience; there’s an innocence and playfulness that makes what she does a bit easier to excuse if you are the sort of person who requires that. But I think, given what she is required to do by the script, her portrayal of the character is pretty uncompromising; she offends people simply by existing, which is a powerful thing. There’s a scene where Tank Girl infiltrates the futuristic Liquid Silver sex club where a computer recording tells her how to dress desirably; she, needless to say, does not heed the advice. I’m not going to go too far into the feminist implications of the performance because your old pal Great Boos Up is a straight white cis boy who doesn’t necessarily need to weigh in on this sort of thing, but the internet has some contemporary assessments of feminism in Tank Girl that you might be interested in (both pro and con).

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More solidly in my area of expertise is the performance of Malcolm McDowell as Keslee, the boss of the evil Water & Power corporation that controls all the water in a drought-stricken future. McDowell has been one of my favorite actors since forever, even in stuff where he’s not being paid to be terribly deep. That’s the case here, where he’s playing a pretty evil-for-evil’s sake dude, the kind of guy who makes an underling walk barefoot across broken glass only to stab him with a water-harvesting device4 and drink the resulting water extracted from his corpse. What I always appreciate about McDowell is his level of commitment; he’s clearly an actor who hesitates to turn down a paying job, but he has a way of making Tank Girl or Princess of Thieves5 feel as though it’s just as legitimate as A Clockwork Orange or O Lucky Man!

Tank Girl is a movie that plays a lot better if you’ve never read the comic and you can just let it be its own thing. It totally and utterly bombed ($6 million at the box office on a $25 million budget), likely a result of being a kind of tepid compromise between anti-establishment punk and modestly budgeted Hollywood production, but it’s received a mild critical reappraisal since then. Roger Ebert said of the aforementioned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film that it is probably the best possible movie about Ninja Turtles. While I think that in our present world of streaming media and alternative distribution, you could possibly find someone willing to bankroll a more authentic take on the source material, the existing movie Tank Girl is probably the best possible Hollywood version of Tank Girl that could have been made in the mid-1990s.

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HERO/ZERO/SIDEKICK/ANTIHERO:6 I love this movie, but probably an ANTIHERO by any kind of objective measure.

NEXT: If you hate the word “problematic,” you’re probably going to want to skip my revisit of the Jim Carrey CGI-heavy action-comedy blockbuster The Mask.


3/12: The Mask (1994)

3/19: Men in Black (1997)