By Stephanie Zacharek
By Stephanie Zacharek
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By Amy Nicholson
Barb Wire is the feature-film debut of Pamela Anderson Lee, that Jungian archetype of the buxom-blond bombshell who's said to have been discovered at some public event on a Sony big screen--an electronic-age version of Lana Turner at the Schwab's counter. The Baywatch star plays the title role in this sci-fi actioner adapted from a comic book.
The Demolitionist, which opened in Phoenix (and nowhere else; it's a test-market release) the same weekend as Barb Wire, is also a futuristic action picture, and though it's dreadful, it may be worth mentioning if only because it's also a vehicle for another lovely Baywatch veteran--Nicole Eggert, again in the title role. This time she's a lady cop who has been revived as an invincible crime avenger after being killed in the line of duty by the minions of an evil gang lord (Richard Grieco). In other words, it's an ultra-low-budget, distaff version of Robocop.
Barb Wire is likewise a remake--cheekily uncredited, but unmistakable--of Casablanca, no less. Barb is a saloon-keep in Steel Harbor, the last remaining open city in what used to be the U.S., prior to a fascist coup. She's adored by all, but loves no one, because she's soul-wounded from a sad love affair. Into town comes the fellow who broke her heart (Temuera Morrison, the rampaging Maori father in Once Were Warriors), with a wife (Victoria Rowell) in tow. The latter is an important figure in the resistance, and the couple want Barb to help them slip into Canada. Will Barb rise above her hurt, or not?
Along with Lee, Morrison and Rowell filling the Bogart, Bergman and Paul Henreid roles are Xander Berkeley as the charmingly corrupt police chief; Andy Warhol alumnus Udo Kier as the German maitre d'; and Steve Railsback as the equivalent of Conrad Veidt's Nazi villain.
In terms of the action genre, Barb Wire is nothing too special. It's neither better nor significantly worse than several dozen other films of its kind. But its sexual politics--and its plain-old political politics--are interestingly handled. It's not anything resembling a fine film, but it's a canny, amusing one.
It may not be an accident that Barb owns an attack rottweiler named Camille--who, at one point, bounces a loud drunk from the bar by grabbing his crotch. Barb Wire could be pop-feminist Camille Paglia's idea of a super action flick. Though the roots may be traceable past La Femme Nikita to Barbarella, Barb Wire and The Demolitionist may be the vanguard of a twisted new genre--a Baywatch star, a purloined plot from a previously successful film, with the twist of an ass-kicking woman cast in the male hero's role--call it Cinema Paglia.
Paglia, as you know, if she has anything to say about it, is the polemicist who loves to rail against what she regards as the politically correct definition of the feminist persona. She defends outre erotica, brazen sexuality, glamour--all the militant-feminist no-no's--and she loathes "asexual" female personae--the butch, unglamorous archetype embodied by, for instance, Glenn Close in her contemporary roles.
If I understand her correctly, Paglia essentially says that it's fine--preferable, even--for a woman to be a slut, as long as she's a strong, emancipated slut. In spite of her self-impressed, posturing manner, there's undeniable, liberating sense in some of her writing, especially on pop culture (she's much less appealing in her dismissive attitude toward such real-world issues as date rape). Barb Wire unselfconsciously adapts the action film to Paglia's philosophy.
Obviously, this film doesn't exist for any reason other than to showcase Lee, and director David Hogan--abetted by costumer Rosanna Norton--manages this task rather well. With her artificial-looking voluptuousness and her sullen, glowering, otherwise inexpressive face, Pamela Anderson Lee looks like a Frank Frazetta painting come to life. There's no sex in the film, and the nudity is as diaphanous as that in Playboy (Lee holds the title for number of times--six--on that magazine's cover; she's the Hefnerian ideal of womanhood). The eroticism is apparently supposed to arise simply from the sight of her standing there, and, at times--as in the images under the opening titles--it does.
In a dishy, guilty-pleasure way, Lee really is beautiful, and she comes across rather sweetly, but as she's no actress--and it's not likely anyone tried to help her much on this--she's one of the less soulful screen beauties in a while. Yet, because "soulful," especially when applied to actresses, is often just a synonym for "vulnerable," it may be that Lee's very lack of soul qualifies her, at least in Barb Wire, as a subversive, Pagliaesque feminist heroine.
Any film in which Humphrey Bogart is a calendar-art blonde and Ingrid Bergman is a macho Maori in a muscle shirt is taking some sort of wacky postmodern stand, even if it's only for the sake of broad-based box-office appeal. Barb is a woman in power who commands total respect from those around her at the same time she embraces her God-given right to dress and style herself like a blow-up doll. If Barb has inflated herself, she's done so for herself, not for some man.
As for The Demolitionist, it's so wretched that Barb Wire really does look like Casablanca by comparison. It does, however, have one joke that's worth a smirk. It comes in the form of an overheard newscast: "In national news, President Bono called the mortar attack on the White House 'sad, really, really sad . . . and kinda freaky.'" There, I just saved you an hour and 43 minutes.--M. V. Moorhead
Directed by David Hogan; with Pamela Anderson Lee, Temuera Morrison, Steve Railsback, Xander Berkeley, Udo Kier, Victoria Rowell and Clint Howard.
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