It’s hard to take a movie seriously when the movie doesn’t take itself seriously, and that’s why “Tank Girl” (1995) isn’t good. Still, it is an interesting style piece that does everything it can to portray a dystopian Earth that requires a big budget when the filmmakers clearly have a small budget; it’s sort of a cheap answer to “Waterworld,” also from 1995. Every time panels of the comic flash on screen, it both adds spice and reminds us that this stuff works better in comics.
Based on a Dark Horse comic by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett, “Tank Girl” follows the titular Rebecca (Lori Petty, although you could’ve told me it’s No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani and I’d be none the wiser), the leader of ragtag water bandits in a future where H2O is so scarce that it has flat-out become the currency. In a setup that was also used a few seasons ago on “Fear the Walking Dead,” Water & Power – led by Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell) – aims to turn everyone in the region into indentured laborers.
It’s the direst of setups, but Rebecca is the most ebullient of people. Maybe it’s because this is the only world she knows, maybe it’s because she’s wired this way, but most likely it’s because “Tank Girl” is a pure style piece that asks “What if our heroine didn’t give a s*** and viewed life – no matter how bleak – as an amusement park ride?” When Rebecca teams up with shy mechanic Jet Girl (Naomi Watts) to rescue young Sam (Stacy Linn Ramsower) and overthrow Water & Power, the stakes are life and death, but the film’s tone is almost the opposite.
Director Rachel Talalay — a rare female superhero/comic movie helmer — and her team can’t disguise the low budget, but their workarounds are fairly effective, often employing pages from the comics or short animations. For instance, instead of an establishing shot of the Water & Power base, we see the comic panel of the base.
What we do see on screen isn’t too bad, most notably the prosthetic/makeup design of the Rippers, kangaroo-human hybrids. Ice-T is among this group, as is Jeff Kober, who “Buffy” fans will recognize as Zachary Kralik and Rack. Kober’s Booga is the one person in “Tank Girl” who inspires some audience sympathy, because he’s essentially a big puppy, and indeed he reminds me of Joshua, the dog-human hybrid from Season 2 of “Dark Angel.”
Rebecca and Jet Girl are likable enough, with the latter gradually getting into the former’s “rebellion is a blast” spirit. But the screenplay by Tedi Sarafian (“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”) is thin. It’s a foundation for wild set pieces and Petty’s scenery chewing, and this could work except that the execution is often tame or hesitant.
Rebecca often alludes to using sex appeal to trick men, but there aren’t any notably sexy sequences, even though the film is rated R. And when “Tank Girl” flirts with getting disturbing, with 10-year-old Sam being served up to a client at a gentlemen’s club, it pulls back so quickly that it’s like it didn’t even go there in the first place.
Another problem is that Rebecca’s behavior is often not admirable; for instance, she tells Kesslee she’d rather let Sam drown in the pipe where she’s trapped than let her become a slave to Water & Power. Drowning in a pipe is a terrible way to die and Rebecca should be using every moment to try to save Sam, then worry about wider political issues afterward. At the same time, “Tank Girl’s” tone is so fluffy – like a kids’ movie, with the brushes with sex and violence being cartoony – that no viewer is thinking about Rebecca’s motivations anyway.
Including one big music number — a modernized version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love”) – a catchy introductory sequence and a soundtrack of respectable cuts (Bjork, Hole, Bush, Portishead, Veruca Salt and of course Ice-T), “Tank Girl” is clearly from the height-of-MTV era. I can see what it’s trying to be on its low budget. But it’s a little too shy about its aims to be edgy, and by metrics such as plot and an arc for Rebecca, it doesn’t even make an effort.