Today, I am going to be diving into a bizarre 1995 cult classic and infamous theatrical flop: Tank Girl.
The plot of Tank Girl is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A girl is among the few survivors of a dystopian Earth. Riding a war tank, she fights against the tyranny of a mega-corporation that dominates the remaining potable water supply of the planet.
The screenplay for Tank Girl was written by Tedi Sarafian (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), based on the comic series of the same name by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett. The series was initially published in strip form starting in 1988 in the independent magazine Deadline, but was collected and more widely distributed in the early 1990s.
The film adaptation was directed by Rachel Talalay, who was also behind the films Ghost In The Machine and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, as well as numerous episodes of television series like Doctor Who, Sherlock, Ally McBeal, Supernatural, The Dead Zone, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow.
The cast of Tank Girl includes Lori Petty (Point Break, A League of Their Own, Free Willy), Ice-T (Leprechaun In The Hood, Johnny Mnemonic, Surviving the Game), Naomi Watts (The Ring, Mulholland Drive, Funny Games), Don Harvey (Creepshow 2, Die Hard 2, Hudson Hawk), Malcolm McDowell (If…, A Clockwork Orange, Cat People, Caligula, Suing The Devil, Time After Time, Class of 1999), Iggy Pop (Dead Man, Cry-Baby, The Adventures of Pete & Pete), and James Hong (Blade Runner, Ninja III: The Domination, Tango & Cash, Big Trouble In Little China).
The editor for the film was James R. Symons, who cut a number of action films over his career, including Fortress 2, Over The Top, Rambo III, Cobra, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The musical score for Tank Girl was composed by Graeme Revell, who has a huge number of film credits to his name: Aeon Flux, Sin City, Open Water, Daredevil, Freddy vs. Jason, Pitch Black, Spawn, From Dusk Till Dawn, Street Fighter, The Craft, and Red Planet, just to name a few.
The production designer for Tank Girl was Catherine Hardwicke, who also did design work for Car 54, Where Are You?, Vanilla Sky, Three Kings, and Tombstone, and went on to find success directing films like Twilight, Lords of Dogtown, and Thirteen.
Legendary effects worker and creature designer Stan Winston designed the humanoid Rippers, and his studio constructed them for the production.
One of the co-creators of Tank Girl, Jamie Hewlett, spoke about his negative experience working on the set of the movie in a 2006 interview with Icon Magazine:
“The script was lousy – me and Alan Martin kept rewriting it and putting Grange Hill jokes and Benny Hill jokes in, and they obviously weren’t getting it. They forgot to film about ten major scenes so we had to animate them … it was a horrible experience.”
As mentioned in his quote, Hewlett and Martin were brought in to fill in a number of gaps in the film with animated sequences. The reason for this may have been budget-motivated or a stylistic decision, but it was undoubtedly a controversial move that has divided many.
In a March 2005 interview, director Rachel Talalay said that Tank Girl was her favorite film to direct, with a caveat:
Tank Girl [was my favorite film to direct], until the studio intervened in their useless wisdom about the ‘morality of America’.
As indicated by that quote, there were some significant editing disagreements between the director and the studio, due in large part to test audience reactions and the explicit nature of the original vision for the film. Notably, an meticulously crafted and expensive prosthetic kangaroo penis was cut entirely from the movie by the studio on moral grounds. Prior to the film’s release, Talalay made a veiled reference to the issue in an interview with Wired:
I think we’ve tried to push the envelope as much as we can…Tank Girl still has a relationship with Booga [the Kangaroo]; we’re trying to keep that in there. That doesn’t mean we plan on hardcore kangaroo sex.
Emily Lloyd (A River Runs Through It) was initially cast as the lead for the film, but eventually dropped out due to the requirement that she shave her head. Lori Petty had already auditioned for the role, and was confident that she would be a perfect fit as Tank Girl.
Courtney Love, the somewhat infamous grunge icon, curated the punk-heavy soundtrack for the film.
In recent years, thanks in large part to the re-release of the film on DVD and Blu-ray, Tank Girl has become a cult favorite for many. In a 2014 interview about the growing popularity of the film in contrast to its initial failure, director Rachel Talalay said:
I really thought I’m going to break the glass ceiling and there’s going to be success for women in action…It was so devastating to me when it wasn’t. Now it has a really strong cult following and there’s a really good teen audience that loves what we were trying to do. But we were just that ahead of our time. So it’s been really frustrating.
Tank Girl was made on a production budget of $25 million, on which it took in only a paltry $4 million domestically in its theatrical run, making it a pretty dramatic financial flop. Critically, it got a divided-to-negative reception: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.2/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 38% from critics and 63% from audiences.
In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert gave Tank Girl 2 out of 5 stars, specifically praising its vision and technical work, while calling out some of its pacing and tonal issues:
Whatever the faults of “Tank Girl,” lack of ambition is not one of them…Under the direction of Rachel Talalay, the movie plunges headlong into technique…Enormous energy went into this movie. I could not, however, care about it for much more than a moment at a time, and after a while its manic energy wore me down.
As Ebert mentions, one of the key strengths of Tank Girl is its ambitious vision. In particular, Stan Winston’s work on the Rippers is incredibly technically impressive, and their design is completely off-the-wall unique.
Additionally, the costuming and production design across the board is all really cool. The sets are interesting and over-the-top, the colors and outfits are reminiscent of the source material, and there is an overall surreal, cartoon-y effect that is achieved with the combination of it all.
All of that said, there are certainly going to be some misses when you swing for the fences every time. In this case, I think that the animated and still-frame bits just don’t work at all: they feels like awkward duct tape trying to hold an unfinished product together, and it isn’t a good look. Likewise, the humor, for one reason or another, never seems to land quite right. It might be that the frenetic energy is a bit over-saturated, so no individual moments stands out.
One positive aspect of Tank Girl that I can’t neglect to mention is the presence of one of my favorite character actors, Malcolm McDowell. I am a total sucker for Malcolm McDowell, particularly when he is playing a bad guy. While he does chew a bunch of scenery, he also disappears for a huge chunk of the movie, which was a bit of a letdown. Still, it is always a treat to see him in things. Also worth noting is that the rest of the actors all seem to be well suited for their roles, and there aren’t really any weak links in the bunch. Petty in particular really dives into her role, and (for better or worse) is the engine that keeps the whole tank rolling.
Overall, Tank Girl definitely has plenty of flaws, but I can understand why it has the vocal fan base it does. I can honestly say that there are some distinct things to like here, and that the film is deserving of revisiting. For that alone, I recommend folks give it a shot. That said, I think the movie’s flaws ultimately outweigh its positives.
One of the reasons why I think that many dislike this film is because it is obnoxious: even though that is certainly by design. I can freely admit that this is at least partially true for me. This points to a potentially larger problem with the movie: this material might just not lend itself to a blockbuster flick to start with. Unlike the similar character of Harley Quinn, who propelled the financial success of Suicide Squad, you can’t effective sanitize Tank Girl in a way that makes her antics palatable for general audiences, while also staying true to the character. I think Tank Girl could make an awesome animated series or film, but making a faithful live action version seems like it would be too expensive and too niche interest to ever try again. That said, I could totally see a Tank Girl incarnation headlining an [adult swim] lineup. Also, who knows? We’re living in a world where Deadpool might be the next big multi-film franchise. Maybe someone will roll the dice on Tank Girl again before we know it.