Tank Girl

Are we aware of the lesbian SM content?
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1995
Director: 
Rachel Talalay
Starring: 
Lori Petty, Malcolm McDowell, Ice-T, Naomi Watts, Don Harvey, Jeff Kober
The Setup: 
Tank Girl and Jet Girl fight for freedom in a dystopian future.
Discussion: 

Don’t you just love saying “Dystopian Future?” I know I do. Tank Girl definitely opens in a dystopian future, around what was once San Francisco, which is now all desert, since a comet hit the Earth. Tank Girl’s opening narration says “the world is screwed now,” as we see her ride up on her adorable water buffalo [I think that’s what it was], and explain how the water and power company, run by Malcolm McDonald, is the big evil corporation that controls all the water in the region. She also comes up and removes her helmet and surprise [to me, at least]: Lori Petty is gorgeous! I didn’t really notice how very beautiful she was before. We also notice that Naomi Watts plays her sidekick, Jet Girl, and that was quite a surprise as well.

Anyway, Tank girl comes back to the commune-like environment where she lives with a bunch of others, including her boyfriend, whom she holds a gun on and pretends to make him strip, but this turns out to be just a sex game they play. Then we greet McDonald, who also intimidates his henchmen in a similar, but now dark, scene. I don’t think that was an accident. The company McDonald runs is the Water and Power authority, and while a lot of the film is about water, it’s also about power. The first few scenes are all different versions of one person with power making a person without power humiliate themselves. You have Tank Girl with the gun on her boyfriend, which is playful, immediately followed by a corrolary scene with McDonald torturing a henchman, which is almost the same scene, but now evil and dark. McDonald uses this device that sucks all the water out of the man’s body, and then he makes a show of drinking that water. I love this shot of his appalled seconds-in-command:

There’s more flirtation with Tank Girl [TG] and her boyfriend, and by now I personally liked TG very much, because she’s funny, horny, and loves to party. It’s refreshing. The movie also sees nothing wrong with stopping everything to make a joke or do somethig goofy or funny, and that’s a nice change, too. Anyway, soon their house in invaded by the bad guys and everyone but TG is killed. Her water buffalo, never quite so adorable as when it ambles up to her as she’s being held prisoner [WHO knew they were so cute? OMG I totally want a water buffalo], and the bad guys shoot it! They also kill TG’s boyfriend. So she’s got a grudge.

Taken prisoner, she comes on to the guards holding her, then efficiently snaps one of their necks. When they look at her funny after this, she exasperatedly goes “WHAT?!” She is put to work as a prisoner of the water and power company.

There she meets Naomi Watts as a cute nerd woman working in tech, who is relentlessly being come on to by this executive of the company. At one point he’s about to assault her when TG comes around and says “Hey! Quit picking on my girlfriend,” and kisses Naomi. There is then an interesting scene in which TG takes a dust shower, then it’s time for her to meet her tank.

Her tank is explicitly presented as a powerful phallus that she can appropriate for herself as she approaches it by putting her arms around its long gun and holding it to her face, then immediately hopping up on it so it seems to protrude from her own crotch. This is intercut with a comic that shows a shocked woman’s face saying “My God… the sheer size of it!” The music on the soundtrack is a generic version of the Shaft theme as she climbs inside.

TG is found and tortured, I mean REALLY tortured, but she refuses to give in. Then something really surprising happens, something that I think that could easily pass by unnoticed if you don’t really look at what it’s saying. Naomi gets konked on the head by the barrel of TG’s tank, and then the movie goes into a short animated sequence that perhaps represents Naomi’s fantasy, but I had the impression was showing reality. In it, Tank Girl and Jet Girl [Naomi] have an incredibly violent SM relationship, with TG beating up Naomi for pleasure—and I mean REALLY beating her up. At one point we see a cartoon Naomi with blood all over her face, one eye swollen completely shut so it looks like an anus right on her face, and she says “you didn’t have to hurt me so bad” [below]. WHAT is going on here? I assume that they had a more openly lesbian SM relationshipin the comic, and this is the only way the movie could allude to that without having it be so dark it couldn’t be released, but hoo boy, it’s quite a bomb to drop in there.

The two of them escape, and happen upon a right-on sister who just happens to have a garage suitable for fixing up both tanks and jets. This leads into a montage / music video for Bjork’s “Army of Me.” Then TG and JG are captured by a race of kangaroo-men, and eventually win them over and join with them against the water and power company. There is a variety of personalities amongst the Kangaroo-men, who are the result of genetic experiments, but one of them has a black thug kind of persona, and around that time I started asking myself “Isn’t Ice-T supposed to be in this movie?” He is, he’s the lead kangaroo, and you have to admire him for agreeing to do a movie like this in full costume the whole time, as opposed to most acting rappers, who seem to only take parts that will further their offscreen image. One of the kangaroos recites a beat poem at one point, then TG and JG convince them to join forces and fight the power. They do, with TG saying at one point during the thick of battle: “Oh! Now you’re working my tit!”

I was totally on board. I really liked its sense of aggressive goofiness, with all the asides and little jokes it takes time out to make. A separate discussion can be reserved for why almost all action movies with a woman as a hero have to be somewhat goofy and can’t be wholly serious, but it works here because the movie as a whole is so committed to this approach.

If you saw this movie in the theater and didn’t care for it much, like a few people I’ve talked to, you might want to review it again, as I get the sense that it wasn’t quite what people expected at the time, and often watching something again, knowing what it’s going to be, one can appreciate it on its own terms. It’s too bad this didn’t really go anywhere, because I would have loved to see Lori Petty’s career go further, and this is a fun character and world to explore. And Naomi sure is charming, even back then.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, especially if you like Buffy and those kinds of things featuring female ass-kickers and a serious / comic tone.