We came to wreck everything and ruin your life. God sent us.
Pardon me if you think this sounds a bit vulgar, but has a movie ever grabbed you by the balls and twisted until your body is wracked with pain? And I’m not talking about the kind of movies that are so awful you feel like you’re going to hurl; I’m talking about a movie that is so raw and visceral and brutally emotional that you feel like you’ve just been put through the wringer? That is exactly what Romper Stomper is. It’s not to be missed.
I’ll be honest. There was only one reason I wanted to see Romper Stomper: Russell Crowe. He’s been one of my favorite actors since I saw his first American film, The Quick And The Dead. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the movie, but I was wowed by Crowe’s manic performance in Virtuosity. If anyone doubted that he was movie star material after L.A. Confidential (the real best picture of 1998, Titanic be damned), this summer’s Gladiator confirmed it. Romper Stomper was one of several films Crowe starred in in his native Australia. It garnered rave reviews (as well as many condemnations) not just for Crowe, but for its director Geoffrey Wright and for actress Jacqueline McKenzie.
Romper Stomper tackles material that few other films would dare touch: the inner life of a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads. The gang jealously guards their turf in Melbourne, Australia. Their leader is an intelligent thug called Hando (Crowe), who collects Nazi memorabilia and can eloquently muse upon Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He has surrounded himself with goons who may not necessarily share his zeal for white supremacy, but most definitely share his love for mayhem. He is enraged that “his” country is being taken over by Asian immigrants that (in his words) are only there to serve as cheap labor for the rich pigs.
Early on, we are also introduced to Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie), a young waif with a drug problem and a father she despises; we learn later that he sexually abused her as a child. She meets Hando in a bar, and the mutual attraction serves mutual needs: hers for a father figure, his for someone to dominate. She is mercilessly — but willingly — drawn into the hateful deeds of the skinheads.
Rather than the traditional three-act cycle, Romper Stomper is almost neatly divided into two sections. In the first half of the film, we see the growing hostility between the skinheads and the Vietnamese immigrants who have descended upon the area and run many of the businesses. The tension culminates in a brilliantly filmed rumble between the two camps, and the skinheads are chased out of “their” area. The second half shows the rewards of Hando’s path of violence and hatred, as the members of his gang one by one are killed or arrested. He is faced with losing his girlfriend, Gabe, and his best friend Davey (Daniel Pollock) because of the path he has chosen.
Romper Stomper is a film that never takes the easy way out. Everything about it is brutally honest. The dialogue between the characters does not sound scripted — it sounds exactly like these people would talk and is filled with as much hateful and profane words as you’ll ever hear in a film. The violence is painful to watch. It never looks like a stunt person is used, or that a punch was pulled. The sex scenes — undoubtedly cut for the American R-rated version — leave very little to the imagination and also have that gritty reality to them. There’s nothing stylized or romantic about them. The actors lived and breathed their characters in the best display of Method acting you’ll see this side of Robert De Niro. All this adds up to a film that feels more like a documentary than a drama.
Romper Stomper begs comparison, thematically, to both a classic and a more recent film: A Clockwork Orange and Fight Club. As I was watching Romper Stomper, the parallels to A Clockwork Orange struck me instantly; it wasn’t until after I finished the film and read some of the reviews on the second disc that I found I wasn’t alone in that comparison. In A Clockwork Orange, we follow a group of young “droogs” who practice violence seemingly for no other reason than to stave off boredom. Alex, the central character played by Malcolm McDowell, is captured and must forcibly come to terms with his path. In the end, he chooses to return to the mayhem of his youth (though the novel the film was based upon had Alex reform and settle down to a “normal” life). Fight Club follows the enigmatic Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) as he recruits disaffected twentysomething males seeking meaning in their meaningless lives. The skinheads of Romper Stomper also are looking for meaning, which they find by allying themselves with someone preaching the superiority of those with their color of skin. It gives them a target group to despise: anyone not in their circle. It’s a basic psychological need that just about everyone fills in one way or another. Some people fill their need to belong by joining a church. Positive things can happen as a result, but you also get things like the Oregon Citizens Alliance in my state of Oregon (natch). Just about every year for about the last ten years, they have attempted to put measures on the ballot that would restrict the freedom of the public schools to teach anything about homosexuality that doesn’t align with their ignorant, fearful beliefs. Some people join exclusive clubs where they can rub elbows with other affluent people and make snide remarks about those who aren’t privileged enough to be a part of the clique. Whatever the person, whatever their need, there is a circle, gang, group, club, organization, or program that they can become a part of that gives their life meaning. If you look at it from that standpoint, perhaps it’s easier to see why people would become skinheads or whatever sort of other group that doesn’t align itself with mainstream society.
I’ve already spoken of my admiration for Russell Crowe. After seeing Romper Stomper, that admiration is even more firmly entrenched. The guy is a dynamo. His work is most like his portrayal of policeman Bud White in L.A. Confidential, except that Hando has no compunctions about hurting anyone or doing anything. He is as animalistic as a man can get, thinking only of his own desires, acting upon any impulse. It’s mesmerizing.
Jacqueline McKenzie had her feature film debut in Romper Stomper. She was 25, though I’d say that her character was much younger. In a way Gabe is a closed book, very tough on the exterior but pleading for affection on the inside. She finds someone in Hando who will pay attention to her, but she quickly learns that he only follows what is in his self-interest. Her scenes with her father, who abused her as a child and still desires her, are as raw as emotions come. While she has acted in several other films, American moviegoers will probably remember her as an ill-fated shark researcher in Deep Blue Sea, that finely-crafted suspense thriller from that greatest of filmmakers, Renny Harlin. [Cue dramatic pause…] No, I’m joking. Yes, she was in Deep Blue Sea, and I did enjoy that movie for its cheap thrills, but it’s hardly in the same league as Romper Stomper and Harlin doesn’t deserve to share the same title with Geoffrey Wright. Now that my credentials as a film reviewer are safe…
Extreme kudos are due to Fox for releasing a DVD of Romper Stomper — and not just any DVD, but a fully restored two-disc edition. It is also an unrated cut of the film, previously only available on VHS in the US as an edited R-rated version. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The print was meticulously restored from the original interpositive, and is very impressive. While it still does not have the pristine quality of a Hollywood production, would you really expect that of a movie like this? There is a limited amount of dust specks on the print and colors are properly balanced; the only thing that mars the picture is a hint of film grain. I’ll hardly fault the DVD producers for that, considering the film was shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm. It certainly looks better than Chasing Amy, an American independent release shot under the same conditions and released on DVD by powerhouse Criterion. Without a doubt, it’s the best DVD presentation of a low-budget Australian feature you’ll ever see. Audio was remixed at the same studio where it was originally recorded, and is presented both in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS. That’s a big step up from its mono roots. The surrounds are used admirably, and are a big reason the movie is as arresting as it is. The rear channels are subtly used to bring you right into the middle of the action…even if that means the middle of the action is the point of view of a helpless Vietnamese girl being pummeled by the skinheads. The vocals do have a certain hollow mono-ness to them at times, but otherwise the track is one of the finest remixes you’ll ever hear.
Two disc sets exist for one reason: to give you a wealth of extras. On disc one of Romper Stomper, the only extras (due to the massive amount of room the DTS track takes up) are a commentary track by director Geoffrey Wright and a music-only track featuring John Clifford White’s award-winning score and a wealth of hardcore punk music. On disc two, the extras start off with the Australian theatrical trailer. Next comes three reviews from the American press at the time of the film’s release in this country. The reviews range from mixed to very positive. I guess I can’t expect them to take the gutsy move that the producers of the Fight Club DVD took by including an equal share of bad press. Next, biographies for seven of the main actors as wells as Geoffrey Wright and two of the producers. Then comes the meat of the second disc: over 90 minutes of interviews with Geoffrey Wright and several members of the cast. Romper Stomper was Wright’s first feature film, and he speaks of the troubles he had getting the film made. Like his movie, he speaks candidly. He has very firm, definite ideas about the film, but does not come across as a pompous, headstrong “auteur” like many other directors do in such conversations. Examples of the film restoration and a gallery of stills accompanied by facts about the film round out the extras.
Many critics took Romper Stomper to task for supposedly “glorifying” violence and the lifestyle of the skinheads. I think that’s the furthest thing from the truth. As you follow the characters, particularly Hando, it should be fairly obvious that his hatred and wanton violence led to his own self-destruction. Why would anyone want to emulate a character who obviously hurts himself just as much as he hurts his victims? Even if Wright does attempt to maintain a neutral position to his characters, it’s easy to see that their actions are wrong, if for no other reason than they bring harm to themselves.
I try to be very open-minded when watching films. I have my own moral yardstick, and the filmmakers’ have their own. I’ll judge a film on its own merits and not critique it from a moral standpoint when the filmmakers don’t cross the line and expect me to accept their views. A reader took me to task over my review of All About My Mother because he thought I was judging the characters for their lifestyles. That was not my intention. I was judging Pedro Almódovar for expecting me to be okay with the self-destructive tendencies of his characters. I’m not sure why I’m bringing this up in this review, other than for the reason that Wright never crosses that line with Romper Stomper. He could have tried to turn Hando into a tragic hero, wronged by society and only looking to take what was rightfully his. But he didn’t. In fact, he never vilified the character either. He didn’t make his movie take a stand. It’s the greatest move a filmmaker wishing to make a statement can make: don’t make a statement at all. Leave it up to the individuals watching to movie to form their opinions based on their own moral yardsticks and from their own observation of the characters.
Romper Stomper isn’t for everyone, but for those who can handle the truth, it is strongly recommended. The disc is a major achievement for Fox, and they are highly commended.
Fox is applauded, Geoffrey Wright is applauded, and Russell Crowe is applauded. The court is in your debt.