‘Flirting with Disaster’ by Anthony Morris
It’s been a long-running joke that my list of top five Australian films only has four films; Mad Max, Mad Max 2, Romper Stomper and Chopper. It’s not true, of course – I’d struggle to narrow it down to a top ten – but it is a sign of what I think Australian film does best: a certain no-frills kind of gritty, brutal action film about hard men in a nasty world.
That said, the Mad Max films take place in worlds divorced from ours, while Chopper is about one real-life individual: anyone who took the train from Geelong to Melbourne in the early 1990s passing by graffiti that said “Stop the Asian Breeding Machines” knows that Romper Stomper – in which racist skinheads blunder across Melbourne bashing and being bashed – was playing with subject matter that was alive and well outside the silver screen.
So, to tackle the obvious question first: of course Romper Stomper is racist. It doesn’t even seriously pretend it’s not. This is a film where Hando (Russell Crowe), the leader of the gang of Neo-Nazi skinheads the film revolves around, states as plain fact that Vietnamese immigrants are swarming into the western suburb of Footscray, buying up local businesses and crowding out the established residents – the usual racist clap-trap most people dismiss without a second’s thought. Then we see Vietnamese immigrants buying up their local pub. Then when the skinheads bash the new owners, reinforcements pile out of a van in a flood that wouldn’t be out of place in a circus clown car. Hando is an unapologetic Nazi, the clear villain of the piece, and the film backs up everything he says.
That’s not the same as endorsing his response, of course. Hando and his gang are morons and thugs. Unfortunately for anyone hoping for a film with a strong moral compass, so is everyone else. The Vietnamese are shown to be (mostly) nameless members of an unstoppable horde, more than happy to take the fight back to the skins; the police are trigger-happy thugs who gun down a child, hippies are losers, rich people are perverts, old people are judgmental sods, white people are racist, Japanese tourists take photos of everything and it always looks like it’s about to rain.
(Oddly, the scene that was often cited “proving” Romper Stomper’s racism when the film was released– the final scene where the Japanese tourists take photos of the surviving skinheads’ last battle – has lost pretty much all of its impact now. Everyone has a camera, and people of all races and creeds would see two skinheads fighting on a beach as prime YouTube material.)
It’s this flirting with disaster, this blundering into areas that we’re told require “sensitivity” that gives exploitation cinema its power. That’s why Tomorrow When the War Began, which certainly didn’t look like an exploitation film, still managed to have a touch of the excitingly dodgy about it with its Asian invaders, while the seemingly endless string of serial killer and shark attack films that supposedly make up this country’s current exploitation output have about as much real impact as being slapped with an overcooked hot dog.
Instead of the traditional method of providing “balance’ to a topic issue like racism – making sure there’s a character who gives the other side of the story – Romper Stomper just makes everyone equally unpleasant. It doesn’t want to rationally discuss the issue of racism in Melbourne’s western suburbs; it just wants to show us a bunch of skinheads on an exciting rampage. Which, after so many films bending over backwards to be tactful and politically correct, isn’t so much a breath of fresh air as it a hurricane.
The whole film is a non-stop, in-your-face rebuttal of that other concept that creates bland filmmaking: the idea that characters have to be “likable”. Hando is a charismatic idiot, leading his gang in ever decreasing circles with no coherent plan (your typical Nazi then). Davey (Daniel Pollock) is presumably meant to be the “nice” one, but he sinks the boot in often enough to make his status as the misguided and easily led hero a little doubtful. Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie) is The Girl That Comes Between Them, and so is usually the one we’d expect to civilise these brutish men. Problem here is, she gets turned on by Mein Kampf (her expression here is hilarious), dobs in the gang to the cops – directly resulting in juvenile skinhead Bubsie’s death – and then sets fire to Hando and Davey’s getaway car, not because Hando murdered a service station attendant, but because she thought they were going to leave her behind. Yes, she’s a real catch.
But again, they’re at least more interesting than everyone else in the film, which is why it’s such an uneasy film to watch. Gabe at least gets some back story as to why she’s messed up (one word: incest), and Davey comes from a broken home, which maybe explains why he’s fallen under Hando’s sway. But Hando’s just bubbled up of nowhere, a malignant force waving a swastika. Which would almost be a worthwhile insight into the rise of National Socalism, if the film didn’t provide us with an even better one: being a skinhead is fun!
The first half hour of Romper Stomper is basically one big dance number, with pounding music and skinheads either beating up Asians or each other (on the dance floor). It’s exhilarating stuff, the kind of filmmaking where the energy comes off the screen in waves. It doesn’t hurt that the songs (written especially for the film; Wright didn’t want to pay money to any existing skinhead bands) feature amazingly racist and completely offensive lyrics. Again, it’s the thrill of exploitation cinema: “how far are they going to take this?”
It’s hardly an original insight to suggest that skinheads – with their big boots, high pants and braces – look like clowns, and Wright has them act accordingly for much of the film. But Romper Stomper is often so over the top – whether by accident or on purpose – that it’s hilarious in plenty of other ways too. The bit where skinhead Sonny Jim (Leigh Russell) says in supposedly creepy deadpan: “We came here to wreck everything and ruin your life. God sent us,” is brilliantly funny, as is the way the soundtrack slowly comes up as Hando spots a police car creeping towards the skinhead’s factory hideout, making it seem like the cops are actually the ones playing the racist oi! music (and making it the worst attempt at sneaking ever). The cry of “Awww! Bubsie!” as Bubsie gets it on with one of the female hangers-on is brilliant, and the scene where the hippie says to Hando: “C’mon guys… let him go” in a croaky dope-smokers voice has been quoted by me for over fifteen years now.
“Compelling” isn’t a word used too often to describe even the best of Australian film, but even if Romper Stomper fills you with nothing but disgust it’s almost impossible to look away. Which, around my house at least, is the mark of great film-making. Plus I like to think that Stephen Hall’s character Flea (the Canberra skinhead joining the navy who “looks like a fuckin’ hippy”) stayed in Canberra and grew up to be the ministerial advisor Hall played in The Hollowmen.
Anthony Morris has been the film editor for Forte magazine since 1992, and has been writing for The Big Issue since 1997. He is currently the film and television reviewer for The Geelong Times and a regular contributor of film and DVD reviews to Empire magazine and The Vine. He has degrees in Journalism and Literature. Anthony blogs over at It’s Better in the Dark (a blog he shares with Rochelle Siemienowicz) and you can also follow him on Twitter @morrbeat.
Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:
Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood watching the television show Round the Twist.
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