God bless the demented and twisted heart of Tank Girl. Rachel Talalay’s adaptation of the post-apocalyptic comic book is both of its time yet so unique and voraciously alive with a style that is timeless. It doesn’t give a damn if you’re along for the ride or not, it will chug along at full speed with or without you.
Talalay’s style is punk-rock doused in a grungy cynicism whose inner fire of anarchy burns madly and gladly with the heat of a thousand suns. Tank Girl isn’t a film you talk about; it’s a film you either proselytize or warn people of. It’s the type of movie that springs to mind when someone trots out that genius tagline, “It wasn’t released; it escaped!”
It’s hard to imagine a movie like Tank Girl being made today. But then again it was hard to imagine it even when the movie came out in 1995. Time has been kind to Talalay’s vision, if only because Hollywood has become so risk-averse and homogenized that Tank Girl seems like a fever dream in comparison.
Lori Petty’s Rebecca is the godmother of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. The world of 2033 is a barren wasteland thanks to a meteor crashing into the Earth and all but wiping out most of the planet’s water supply. A megalomaniacal mad man, Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell) runs the W&P (Water & Power) Corporation which holds the majority of the Earth’s water. Yet, Petty’s Tank Girl doesn’t let that keep her down. She’s not bubbly or optimistic but neither is she dour and sad. She refuses to bow both to the systemic dangers of her world or to Kesslee.
It’s her superpower if you will. Her ability to not give the slightest of fucks imbues Rebecca with an almost superhuman immunity to the dangers of power. She can’t be bought, coerced, bribed, or blackmailed. But this isn’t to say she doesn’t care. Not giving a fuck is not the same thing as standing idly by while in a labor camp and watching the head of security sexually harass a fighter pilot Jet (Naomi Watts).
Rebecca retains her humanity despite the world’s worst attempts to rob her of it. Kesslee’s attempts to torture Rebecca into submission, to work for him, prove pointless. She gleefully taunts him with vulgar jokes or defiant victory cries. Her refusal to break even when faced with a form of torture that will trigger her past traumas is somehow inspiring, steeped in her own obnoxious stubbornness as it is.
Tedi Sarafian’s script is brutal in its pacing and economy of exposition. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived through a decade of the MCU and the DCEU, or maybe because of the depth of my love for Buckaroo Banzai, but I found myself able to follow the neck-breaking gonzo speed of which the narrative races at. It has gaps but in a way, because of the modern blockbuster, I found myself rarely lost. I’m willing to bet you’d be able to follow along as well.
However, despite Petty’s ineffable charm, even she can’t overcome Sarafian’s tortured and forced dialogue. Pop culture references have a short shelf life. Surely Rebecca’s offhand comment about wanting to hurry home and watch Baywatch was dated even before they wrapped filming of the scene.
We see Kesslee amusingly sit back and watch Rebecca and Jet plan their escape and do nothing to stop it. Of the two probabilities, I find fascist overlords eavesdropping on their prisoners as they discuss escape a more believable form of entertainment. Though I won’t lie, Baywatch somehow surviving even after a comet crashes into the Earth and washes away all other recognizable forms of our civilization is oddly comforting to think about.
Having never read the comic it is hard for me to tell whether it’s Sarafian’s script or the characters created by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett which imbue so much life into the performances. Though I have a sneaking suspicion it might be Talalay’s direction and the charisma and audacious talent of her actresses. Sarafian’s script feels like a series of incidents strewn together without any road map or theme. In a way, it’s fitting with the film’s anarchic spirit. I get the feeling that Tank Girl views such things as a three-act or five-act structure with inherent distrust and bristles at such authoritarian restrictions.
Indeed, much of why Talalay’s psychedelic kaleidoscopic acid trip works is partly because of her work with cinematographer Gale Tattersall. Low angles, Dutch angles, high angles, neon lights, fisheye lens, spinning pages of the actual Tank Girl comic, you name it and Tattersall and Talalay have thrown in at the screen. Rarely has a post-apocalyptic Earth seemed so colorful yet so grimy at the same time.
Tank Girl feels untethered from reality as Talalay and Tattersall zoom and spin around. There are many comic book movies, now more than ever. But few have the pulse and feel as alive as Tank Girl. Rebecca takes a shower while in the W&P labor camp and Tattersall films it as a riff on all those women in prison movies. Except Talalay has replaced the water from the showerhead with delousing powder. Petty seductively roams her hands over her body spreading the dust like powder over her exposed flesh making the scene a mockery of the usually exploitative staple normally seen in the genre. Meanwhile “Roads” by Portishead, the haunting voice of Beth Gibbons, woven throughout the scene.
Moments such as these reveal Talalay’s sardonic cinematic wit. She’s taking tropes and subverting them all while refusing to play by anybody’s rules but her own. More than anything Tank Girl is a cinematic tonic, refreshing and bracing with a flavor and sting all its own.
Talalay allows Petty plenty of room to breathe life into Rebecca. Petty doesn’t just swing for the fences; she climbs the fence and runs screaming from the ballpark. Her Tank Girl can barely be contained by the frame, her energy, and outsized personality all but threaten to burn the very celluloid itself.
Even when Tank Girl takes a bizarre turn such as the now infamous scene in which Rebecca and Jet take the Madame of a pleasure station hostage and force her to sing a Cole Porter song. The scene morphs into a Busby Berkeley style dance number but never feels forced. You would think since the scene comes after Rebecca rescuing a girl, Sam (Stacy Linn Ramsower) from a pedophile played by none other than Iggy Pop, that it would seem in bad taste. It is absolutely in bad taste. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it rises below vulgarity.
Though Tank Girl often feels fragmented it somehow feels like part of a whole, in other words, it feels meaningful rather than makes sense. Absurd though Tank Girl may be, it is always honest about its own nonsensicality. The Cole Porter number, for example, is followed by a scene in which the head henchmen, Sgt. Small (Don Harvey), turns to one of his underlings and muses what that strange sound is. “Sounds like Cole Porter to me, sir.”
Tank Girl is such a bizarre beast that I haven’t even spoken about one of its most bizarre aspects, Ice-T as a half-human half kangaroo named T-Saint. T-Saint is a Ripper, a species that has been acting as a sort of resistance cell against the W&P. The makeup job still holds up and honestly the Rippers themselves are so strange that the result is almost hypnotic. The film spends exactly zero time explaining them. Well, they do but the explanation is so ludicrous and nonsensical even for Tank Girl. Trying to figure it out requires more headspace than I am willing to give it quite frankly. Suffice to say it involves secret government super-soldiers, Kangaroos, and reincarnated souls.
Look, like I said, Tank Girl is disjointed, to say the least. Talalay will throw in cutscenes, bits of animation, that seem less like explanations to what happened, and more like visions pried from Rebecca’s rumbling subconscious. Yet, I can’t deny a certain freedom that crackles through every frame of the film. Call it untethered, unmoored, disjointed, discombobulated, or even just a plain old mess. But you can’t call it boring, forced, or false.
Much of the credit goes to Talalay as well as Petty. But there’s one more aspect that I’ve neglected to mention that is integral to the film’s refusal to yield to sameness. The friendship of Jet and Rebecca. Petty and Watts have a delightful friendship that blooms throughout the film.
We don’t often see women “badasses” with friends. They are often loners or maybe they have a small child to care for to show their maternal side, as Rebecca has with Sam. But with Jet, Rebecca has not a kindred spirit, but someone who she trusts and can confide in. Jet stammers where Rebecca caterwauls.
They are an odd couple but we don’t normally see women in these types of relationships outside of gross-out comedies. Watts brings a quiet confidence to Jet that compliments Rebecca’s supernova-esque belief in self. At times the two will break into laughter as if Talalay had caught them between takes and edited the footage into the film proper.
The film is a rarity, and though enriching, signifies far greater poverty in the system which birthed it. As Ebert would say, it is made up of whole cloth. A true original, there has never been anything like Tank Girl, before or since.