Bring on the apocalypse, but spare us the travail of 'Tank Girl'


Years back, "Mad Max" pretty much blew the genre of post-apocalyptic neo-techno-road western out of the water, and since then there's been nowhere to go but down. But who could have imagined "Tank Girl"? It's gone down so far it looks like there's no up to me.

Derived from a raw, vulgar, protean British comic strip, it's been tamed and crushed by director Rachel Talalay (I know she's from Baltimore; the movie's still terrible) and a less than overwhelming production team. This is one of those films set in a teeming, swarming future that really has about seven people in it and all the backgrounds are crude paintings.

Occasionally, possibly to suggest tonal intensities that she herself is incapable of achieving, Talalay will cut to still-frame sequences from the actual comic book. With their bold pop art energy and throbbing primary colors, they're much more compelling than the raggedy live action sequences. And you see the genius of great comic artists: In a few vivid strokes, Jamie Hewlitt and Allan Martin create a figure of raw, rude, profane energy, a Tank Girl worthy of making a movie about.

Talalay is stuck with poor Lori Petty as Tank Girl, and though Petty was clearly game and tried hard, she never crackles to life. One senses her tightness and conflictedness: Her Tank Girl feels phony rather than exuberant. She's too self-aware, too modern, too squeaky in a part that demands not an actress but a feral force of nature. A British actress, Naomi Watts, is far more amusing as her sidekick, Jet Girl.

Of plot, there's not. In the post-apocalypse world, the planet is a desert, and the ominous Water and Power company, led by crackpot specialist Malcolm McDowell, rules all. Meanwhile, two sources of rebellion flourish: A) punk-hippie communes of illegal water users, and B) Rippers, mutated man-kangaroo beings who pop out of the sand and cut up Water-Power's soldiers.

When first we meet her, Tank Girl doesn't even have her tank; she's a surviving punk-hippie from a Water-Power raid, turned into a slave. When she meets another slave -- Jet Girl, a slave pilot, the rarest kind of slave of all -- the two of them escape and bond with the Rippers and go back to get it on, violence-wise, with the Water-Power boys.

The Rippers are a very bad idea. They turn out to be a bunch of third-rate American actors (Ice-T!) in kangaroo outfits, but one feels as if one has wandered backstage in a Boise, Idaho, dinner theater production of "Cats." Now, it didn't help me at all that I hate "Cats," but at least nobody burst into a terrible chorus of "Mr. Mistoffelees," which is what earns the film its mangy half-star. Mercy must always be rewarded.

Almost nothing works, and Petty's screeching antics actually produce headaches among victims in the audience; the script is witless, the action completely banal. There's not much drive. "Mad Max" took you in and made you believe and it accumulated power with almost unbearable intensity. Nothing in "Tank Girl" comes close.

Tanks but no tanks.

"Tank Girl"

Starring Lori Petty and Malcolm McDowell

Directed by Rachel Talalay

Released by United Artists

Rated R (violence and profanity)

... 1/2 *

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