Film Torments: Barb Wire (1996)

THIS TIME on Torments, Dan looks at a rightly forgotten relic.

For those who grew up in the 1990s, Baywatch hit its peak just outside of the collective memory. Asserting itself into international pop-culture with a combination of increasingly improbable storylines, raw sex appeal and… more raw sex appeal, the show soon became the most-watched television show in the world while also catapulting its actors to superstardom, cult or otherwise. Aside from the inimitable David Hasselhoff, the greatest beneficiary of this success was the woman who played CJ Parker: one Pamela Denise Anderson.

Anderson had received some notoriety as a Playmate of the Month in Playboy magazine beforehand, but her Baywatch role was the one that made her a household name (and, no doubt, the pride of place on many teenage boys’ bedroom walls). Moreover, she was savvy enough to propagate her image as a sex symbol while ensuring her name remained on the presses of tabloids everywhere through her tumultuous marriage to known scumbag Tommy Lee. (She also took his name, hence the ‘Lee’ in her credits at the time.)

But, of course, she was more ambitious than that, and we must remember: these were the days before the so-called Golden Age of Television that persists in modernity, where the likes of Game of Thrones and Chernobyl command the prestige and inflated budgets of blockbuster cinema. Television was fine for the 90s, honey, but it wasn’t real Hollywood; real success. Anderson needed a star vehicle to propel her into that stratosphere beyond, the kind of film that would cement her place as the cinematic icon of the decade.

Barb Wire was not it.

On paper – such is the tragedy of these things – Barb Wire has all the hallmarks of a 90s camp classic. In the dystopian future of 2017, as the US is ravaged by the Second American Civil War, a leather-clad bounty-hunter-cum-nightclub-proprietor (Anderson in the title role) becomes embroiled in a plot to smuggle a vital leader of the vaguely-defined resistance out of Steel Harbor, the “last free city” in the country, contending with low-life Mad Max rejects, an old flame (Temuera Morrison) and openly fascistic American Colonels in the process. It’s even based (very loosely) on the Dark Horse comic series of the same name. Mix in a hefty dollop of Casablanca (yes, really), a hefty budget for the material, and it’s an almost guaranteed cult mainstay.

On paper. The unfortunate reality is that Barb Wire is a sluggish, incoherent trawl through Roger Corman clichés that, inexplicably, tries its damndest to play its Bogart delusions with a straight face. For such an absurd and pulpy premise, the film tries and fails to evoke the atmosphere of a gritty noir, complete with static voice-over and backlit police chief office. Put simply, it aims for The Big Sleep when it should be gunning Beyond Thunderdome.

We’ll get to the Casablanca comparison later; first, let’s talk about Barb herself. This heroine is supposed to be a sassy, self-actualised arse-kicker, as comfortable shuriken-ing dudes with a stiletto heel as she is reclining in waist-crunching dominatrix corsets. When we look at some of the cover art for the comic series’ original run, it’s not hard to see why Anderson gravitated toward this role. In her own words: “Oh, my God, she’s on a motorcycle in leather, crazy, with big hair, glamorous… It’s totally me.”

Anderson possessed the self-awareness that many sex symbols of their time did, and it was her idea to shoot the introduction to Barb in the film, where she performs a champagne-soaked striptease before the stiletto-shuriken cuts through the murk. Barb’s proficiency as a battle-hardened mercenary is matched by her willingness to commodify her body if it means getting what she wants, and it requires a very talented performer to demonstrate that dichotomy without slipping into wanton gratuity.

Whether that’s empowering or not depends on one’s perspective; Anderson is incapable of straddling the fine line regardless. She’s no Bo Derek – thank god, no one is – but the po-faced squint she dons throughout the run-time is her only expression. She has presence, of course, and commands attention even when the camera isn’t outright voyeuristic, yet her awful lines are delivered in that snarky, half-whispered monotone, independent of context. To put it bluntly, her performance is only a small step away from pornography in terms of acting ability, save for the few moments where she’s given rein to lean into the film’s campier undertones.

The enjoyment one has when watching Barb Wire is dependent on one’s tolerance for cheesecake. Aside from the gratuity surrounding Anderson’s figure, there’s precious little to seek your teeth into; the editing is abysmal, the script is worse, and the grotty warehouse aesthetic becomes tedious very quickly. Most of my time watching was dedicated to spotting the structural similarities to Casablanca; by similarities, I mean the entire narrative, complete with a rain-soaked plane ride out of town and the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

It’s too deliberate to write it off as an unhappy accident, but the notion that the writers thought Casablanca, of all things, would be the appropriate film to homage in this glorified skin-flick is hilarious and baffling in equal measure. Mercifully, Barb Wire locks into this happy medium in the closing scenes, where Barb fistfights the cackling Colonel Pryzer (Steve Railsback) on top of a car that’s been hoisted skyward by a crane. It’s ten minutes of carnage that punches through the boredom of the preceding 80, finally reaching the plateau of camp nonsense that the premise demanded.

Too little, too late. Ten minutes of joyous nonsense is not enough to salvage what came before it. The original director, Adam Rifkin, was replaced by David Hogan midway through production and the latter’s inexperience shines through: The film’s incompetent direction and awful script has compounded by the conclusion, lulling the audience into a stupor so settled that even trash master Clint Howard can’t rouse them from it. “[The producers] began changing it,” Anderson would later say. “…I wanted to keep it tongue-in-cheek, but… all the irony was gone.”

Irony is sorely lacking in Barb Wire. The glib coyness that Anderson lobbied for is completely absent in the film, and she’s as lost in the shuffle as everyone else. Unsurprising, then, that the film was both a critical and financial failure, recouping only $3 million of its $23 million budget and managing seven Razzie nominations. Its 18-certificate (in the US) barred access to Anderson’s core demographic of horny teenage boys, and more discerning adults had no real interest, especially since she was finishing up her Baywatch run.

Given that Barb Wire was explicitly created for propelling her star higher, its disastrous reception meant that her film career flopped alongside it. Her detachment from the creative process ultimately informed her decision to co-produce the cult series V.I.P., which smartly chose to embrace the camp and revel in it. In an increasingly homogenised cinematic landscape, more films could stand to do the same.

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