Into the Tank

Based on the cult-fave comic series by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett, Tank Girl is more a psychedelic fusion of comic and film than a movie version of the comic. Using wild animation that's much in the vein of MTV's Liquid Television along with comic panels drawn by Tank Girl co-creator Hewlett, Tank Girl flip flops between live action and cartoon, to the beat of an alternative rock soundtrack orchestrated by executive music coordinator Courtney Love-Cobain. Unfortunately, while Tank Girl is plenty slick, it's simply not entertaining enough.

What is enjoyable about Tank Girl is Lori Petty. As Rebecca, a.k.a. Tank Girl, Petty plays a spunky, liberated female hero so well that it seems like the character was modeled after her. She actually makes the idea of roasting weenies on top of a tank's turret during a firefight seem plausible, and delivers witty lines with such charm that they come off as believable remarks rather than carefully placed dialogue. You've got to love a character whose main complaint about being tied up in a straitjacket in a freezing cold room is the fact that she can't play with herself. When Petty is pushing her outrageousness to the max, the potential that Tank Girl had -- and too often fails to achieve -- becomes painfully evident.

The film has a run-of-the-mill sci-fi plot: it's the year 2033, and a comet has robbed the Earth of the majority of its water, reducing the planet to a post-apocalyptic state. An evil corporation known as Water and Power -- run by Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell), the CEO from hell -- has achieved a stranglehold on the remaining water supply through militant means. Threatening Water and Power's monopoly is a group of mutants -- more specifically, half men/half kangaroos -- called Rippers, who roam the countryside killing corporate troopers and causing other problems. Content to live on the sidelines of the Water and Power/Rippers conflict as a scavenger, Rebecca ends up a prisoner in the Water and Power complex, where she meets Jet (Naomi Watts). The two escape -- stealing a 1943 M5 Stewart tank and a Flyer (a fighter plane) in the process -- and with the help of the Rippers, our heroes take on bad guy Kesslee and bad company Water and Power.

But while its plot may be basic and straightforward, Tank Girl becomes progressively disjointed from the get go. The first part of the film is chronologically rearranged, and while it's not hard to figure out the order of events, there doesn't seem to be a good reason for this shuffling. Even worse, various plot elements and characters are introduced and then dropped before anything can really be done with them. For example, Johnny Profit, the creator of the Rippers, is mentioned a couple of times in dialogue and then makes his appearance in a pine box, seeming to serve only as a catalyst to piss off the Rippers and reinforce a supposedly complicated trap crafted by Kesslee.

The Rippers -- whose on-screen designs are by special effects wizard Stan Winston -- are portrayed as being mysterious and vicious in the beginning of the film, but are later exposed as being none other than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Kangaroos. (So much so that it's surprising that they don't have an affinity for pizza and skateboards.) Alarmingly, each Ripper possesses a cutesy character trait (like the Seven Dwarves), and they "pray" by dancing around to '70s grooves. If that wasn't bad enough, the leader of the Rippers, DeeTee (Reg E. Cathey), plays the sax and talks like Isaac Hayes. It's hard to believe that these hip cats would be into death and dismemberment. About the only Ripper that's even somewhat believable is T-Saint (Ice-T) -- if only he could lose the gangsta routine.

While it's understandable that the filmmakers didn't want to draw attention away from Petty's Tank Girl, they could have given bad guy Kesslee and sidekick Jet more to work with. For the first part of the film, all McDowell really has to do is recite standard villain dialogue and look very, very displeased. After taking a leave of absence from the movie's middle part, McDowell returns, only to be overshadowed by special effects. As for Tank Girl's sidekick with an Australian accent, the evolution of Jet from timid mechanic to "I am Jet Girl, hear me roar" seems to occur between scenes; whether this is a film editing problem or a lack of acting ability on Watts' part is uncertain.

If more of Tank Girl were as outrageous as Petty manages to be most of the time, its lack of cohesiveness and even the guys in rubber kangaroo suits might be tolerable. But considering that an impromptu Cole Porter song-and-dance number seems to be as far as the film's willing to go, Tank Girl is more a bad sci-fi film than an unbridled romp with a spunky heroine.

Tank Girl.
Directed by Rachel Talalay. With Lori Petty, Malcolm McDowell and Naomi Watts.

Rated R.
104 minutes.

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