Director: David Hogan (USA). Year of Release: 1996
2017 (yeah!), Steel Harbour, the middle of the Second American Civil War. A leather clad figure is writhing on the stage of a bar, dancing to a rocky version of What’s Up. Jets of water are being sprayed at her, and we can see lots of her cleavage. Indeed we can see lots more than her cleavage. One of the bar’s customers makes a lascivious remark. The woman looks at him, takes aim and fires. He ends up with a stiletto sticking through his forehead.
The action continues inside a sleazy metal club. A female singer-guitarist leads her band in a cover of Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot, leading us to false expectations that the soundtrack is going to be pretty good. Barb Wire, the dancer from the opening scene, is apparently the owner of the bar, although she is a bounty hunter on the side. Oh, and every so often she has to pose as a sex worker.
Welcome to anti-sexism, 1990s Hollywood style. If you call a woman “Babe“, you’re likely to be killed for it. But while all the men wear suits or military uniforms, the main woman is dressed head to toe in leather. Or covered in bubble bath. Or in a bath robe. Or with a towel wrapped around her that is unwrapping a little more every second.
Yes, the leader of the resistance is also a woman, but she literally is denied a voice – she speaks through a voice box – and is only given a few scenes. There is an Important Scientist who is both female and black, but she spends most of her time running around helplessly being protected by Big Men. Apparently she is the one person who can prevent the US being destroyed by an HIV-type virus, not that she’s allowed more than a couple of sentences to say anything about it.
My top tip for judging this sort of comic book film is to ask how seriously it takes itself. Any sign that it thinks that it is saying something meaningful and it’s likely to be too earnest, too humourless. This is why for all its manifold faults. Dick Tracy is way better than most Marvel films, and why Adam West is by far the best Batman. At times, you feel that Barb Wire is in on the joke, but then you experience the ridiculous pretensions towards anti-sexism and think, maybe not.
I won’t say much about the plot, because there’s not much plot to speak of, but hold on! What’s this? A bar owner meets their long lost love who is back in town with someone else at their side. A raid by paramilitary police in dark uniforms and peaked caps. A fat and slightly ridiculous man through which all dubious dealings must pass. A sleazy fraudster with something to sell who ends up the victim of his own duplicitousness. A shady double deal to attain safe passage out of here.
And there’s more. There’s the hero who claims to be only in it for themselves but appears to be secretly on the side of the resistance. That hero plans to depart and leaves their bar to their loyal lieutenant. There’s even a weepy farewell scene in a rainy airline runway. Whisper it, but Barb Wire has pretensions to be Casablanca. And yes, there is one thing they do have in common. The plot of Casablanca makes no sense either (just what are these Letters of Transit?)
There are, of course, also some huge differences. Casablanca had one of the wittiest and most erudite scripts in world cinema. It had Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and Peter Lorre and Paul Henreid. It has actual veterans of the French resistance playing members of the resistance. Barb Wire has Pamela Lee Anderson and little else.
Instead, it has a lot of people hitting each other, and kicking each other, and throwing each other from great heights. There are a lot of explosions and car crashes, albeit in a terribly formulaic way. There is much less wit or erudition. The script feels like it is generated by a computer and though some people (well one person) in tonight’s screening laughed often and loudly, this was at jokes which had been clearly telegraphed way in advance.
And yet, this isn’t a terrible film, one that I’d advise you to avoid at all costs. There’s something about it to make you think that somehow, somewhere down the line, the actors and writers are in on the joke. This is not a good joke, but it’s a sign that at least parts of the film are being played for laughs, even though there’s not much real humour in here.
Oh, and did no-one notice the gaping hole in the plot line? In order to get through the border control policed by the UN (so determinedly hostile to seekers of political asylum – oh, the person concerned is black, so as you were), she slips on a pair of contact lenses to allow her through the high-technology eye detectors. And none of the super-efficient border guards notice the black woman with blue eyes? Really?
Having said this, if that were the only problem, Barb Wire would be perfectly fine. Unfortunately, it’s nonsense on stilts and really has few redeeming features. Except that it’s not absolutely terrible. Does that count as a redeeming feature?