You’ve probably forgotten Tank Girl, buried it beneath the subsequent deluge of increasingly tiresome and tired comic book adaptations that followed. It was an early attempt to incorporate a “cartoony” style (inserts of colourful artwork, hyperbolic dialogue, big gestures) into an adaptation – i.e. to adapt with minimum loss of medium specificity – but it illustrates some of the enduring problems Hollywood has in this area, acquiring a hot property and then ironing out the outrageousness (not to mention the Britishness) that made Jamie Hewlett and ALan Martin’s comic books special in the first place. I wish I could say that, now that some time has passed, Tank Girl deserves reappraisal, but I’m afraid it’s still a damp mess of half-measures, compromises, its tiresome ebullience made even more slovenly by the traces of studio interference at every level. The best I can say is that, because it’s shot by Gale Tattersall, who worked with Bill Douglas on the supreme Comrades, it looks great, perhaps better, more polished, than it needs to, or that it represents the look of a big budget blockbuster before the effects of CGI had really taken hold in Hollywood, meaning that it relies almost entirely on vehicular stunts, miniatures and pyrotechnics (the Mad Max echoes can’t be coincidental) that must already have given it a pleasingly old-fashioned feel.
It passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. It’s directed by a woman (Rachael Talalay), with production design by Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Twilight) and has costumes by Arianne Philips (A Single Man, The Crow, and Madonna’s recent stage shows). It has feminist pedigree, but also numerous scenes where men threaten women with sexual violence. When we first meet Tank Girl (aside from her voiceover narration setting the scene), she is forcing a hot guy to strip naked at gunpoint, gawping with delight at his abs and reversing an old stereotype of men humiliating women for their visual pleasure in cinema. It turns out that this is her boyfriend, and they’re acting out a kinky little sex game, but the intention is clear that the film wants to switch its gender roles (and the playfulness of the scene is designed to contrast with the next one, in which Malcolm MacDowell’s villain forces one of his minions to strip barefoot and walk across broken glass).
This is a post-apocalyptic world where water is scarce, the populace reduced to scraping provisions from the wreckage of society. Lori Petty’s Rebecca (as she is known before her emergence as superhero renegade Tank Girl) steals water, and generally gets by with skill, cunning and easy defiance of authority. Watts plays Jet, a nerdy mechanic who beomces sidekick to Tank Girl. Her character trajectory goes from being sexually harrassed by an obnoxious superior officer (and being rescued by an interventionist snog from Rebecca), to getting and taking the chance to shoot him in the head (see images above).
Working up to that final, triumphant close-up, she is often kept at the side of the frame, usually positioned deliberately as sidekick in two-shots. Watts’ performance is almost entirely reactive. It reminds me of how many of her roles require her to conceal or suppress emotions, to act threatened or intimidated. And she does it so well – the mouth open, tight breathing, her top front teeth showing and a pained look not of anything so “big” as terror, but of resignation to a fate. It’s difficult to describe this kind of acting without it sounding exaggerated, but Watts usually keeps it contained. It comprises most of her work in Funny Games, where she essays the ultimate rendition of a suffering, subjected wife and mother. Tank Girl is such a lively, motive, broad-stroke character, with a shouty voice and mannerisms barely affected by her situation or location; she doesn’t react, but instead builds herself a badass persona out of not responding to the gravity of what she is faced with. This resistance is accentuated by having MacDowell play her enemy as a thespianic, black-suited monologuist. Next to Lori Petty’s manic act, Watts creates a clutch of buttoned up nerdiness. While Tank Girl advocates wisecracks and nonchalance as the best way to derail the taut rhetoric of totalitarianism, Jet starts out believing that “the better you behave, the more they leave you alone, and the more they leave you alone, the better off you are” and reigns in her desires and feelings accordingly. While the title character goes through her adventures unfazed and unchanged, it is Jet who undergoes a protagonist’s journey, working towards proactivity. Petty’s voice is squawky and nasal; I’m certain that she was channelling her friend and A League of Their Own co-star Madonna, specifically her role in Desperately Seeking Susan, with a full-volume Brooklyn brashness that is always disruptive of a scene’s attempts at decorum. Watt’s voice on the other hand catches in the throat. It is thin and gasping when raised, and I was more closely reminded of a young Jenny Agutter shouting at a train or something. And I’m hoping this is the last film when she suffers the indignity of being groped by a mutant kangaroo.
Often though, Watts has to do more mugging than usual in this film, her eyes a bit wider, her features more agog than they would be in her more mature performances. By the time we get to Mulholland Drive, she will have found the skills to apply that expressive range to the wide-eyed wonder of a Hollywood ingenue.