Subterranean skinheads in Australia stomp on civilization

September 24, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

'Romper Stomper'

Starring Russell Crowe and Daniel Pollock

Directed by Geoffrey Wright

Released by Academy Entertainment

Rated NC-17

*** You see them and you wonder: Why? With their shaven heads, tattooed bodies, festering hatreds, fetishistic fascination with leather, chains, the icons of the Third Reich, and those dead, dead eyes, the skinheads seem to have beamed to Earth from the Planet of the Droogs. What immortal hand or eye could frame their fearful symmetry?

That's the question Geoffrey Wright fails to examine in his controversial and mega-violent examination of their culture, Australian style, in "Romper Stomper," opening today at the Charles.

But it's the only question; he tells you everything else.

The film turns out to be something less than an examination of the tribal ways of this unit of mutant scum at war with the known world, and particularly with those of a different skin hue. Rather, Wright uses the phenomenon as the context for what is actually quite a good, though limited, melodrama, turning on the eternal device of melodramatists, the love triangle.

The film watches as a rebellious young woman, beautiful and bent (she's fleeing an abusive, wealthy father) falls in with a pack of savage baldies who haunt the blue-tinted underground malls of Melbourne and stalk the odd Vietnamese immigrant for sport. It's "A Clockwork Orange" and "We'll put another shrimp on the barbie, mate" combined into one tapestry.

She's beautiful and is quickly claimed by Hondo (Russell Crowe), obersturmbannfueher of this subterranean wannabe master race. But it's Davey (the late Daniel Pollock), the only one of the breed with glimmerings of conscience, who develops a flicker of passion that might just become love.

This little snippet of plot is set against the larger social picture, in which the angry 'heads have declared war on newly arriving Vietnamese. It's pretty much the same dismal, squalid story of all racial violence: frustrated, alienated morons obsessed with the theory of their own natural superiority and in consequence outraged at the usurpation by harder working, smarter people of a different ethnic heritage.

It can't even be said that Wright does much of a job in working up the Vietnamese immigrants, in whom he quickly loses interest. What's new is the intensity with which Wright films the ,, terrifying violence between the groups, which earns the film its truly deserved NC-17. It's as if he's brought a hand-held camera onto the field at Marathon or the pass at Thermopylae; one feels literally subsumed by violence, by the utter blur of confusion, exhaustion and exhilaration.

As an examination of iron-age warfare between warrior clans, "Romper Stomper" is mind-blowingly convincing, no matter that it's set in the Melbourne suburbs of the late 20th century. But that's about as far as the film goes, before it becomes far too enamored of the Hondo-Davey-Gabe subplot which, by movie's end, has become its plot.

As these things go, it's not bad. Russell Crowe, who was warm and cuddly in "The Efficiency Expert," is almost unrecognizeable as Hondo, with his chilling, bony sense of command. Pollock is both convincing and pathetic as poor Davey; his death last year shortly after the making of the film is tragic. But the performing honors go to Jacqueline McKenzie, who plays Gabe and manages to bring a great deal of coherence to the seemingly contradictory aspects of her role. It's almost a cliche: thrill-seeking rich girl gone slumming. But McKenzie makes Gabe credible, quite a trick.

You look at it and you think: Put another hope for Western Civilization on the barbie, mate.

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