Two guys fightin' over a dame.
If it ain't the oldest plot on the books, it's one of them. The guy-girl-guy triangle has been a dramatist's staple since Lancelot and King Arthur's old lady Guinevere bumped uglies in the woods outside Camelot. I'm-no-good-at-being-noble Bogart beat out Paul Henreid for Ingrid Bergman's affection (then gave the lie to his self-professed roguishness by putting her on the plane with the resistance leader) in Casablanca. In recent decades, from Broadway Danny Rose to Bull Durham, it's the same old same old.
Two mugs fall for a gal; she goes for the lout first, but eventually prefers the sensitive, soulful stud. From Tootsie to Tequila Sunrise, The Getaway to Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, the message is clear A nothing busts up a good friendship like falling in love.
Unfortunately, nobody explained that to Hando and Davey, the leaders of an Australian skinhead gang in Geoffrey Wright's inflammatory and powerful new film, Romper Stomper. The two neo-Nazis are head-butting best mates until Gabe (short for Gabriella) enters the picture. Fleeing both her abusive junkie boyfriend and her wealthy, incestuous father, Gabe meets the boys in a seedy skinhead bar and falls for Hando after some serious eye contact from afar.
Hando's quite a catch -- a tattooed hooligan who sleeps under a swastika, quotes Mein Kampf reverently, mercilessly pummels defenseless Vietnamese immigrant children who he and his gang outnumber four to one, and pulls Gabe by the hair when it's time to do the nasty (violently and doggy-style, natch). Davey's not much better; he hasn't bought into the white supremacist agenda as deeply as Hando has, but that doesn't stop him from kicking a vulnerable gook (Hando's affectionate term) in the teeth when the opportunity presents itself.
You can see the clouds forming from across the outback A Hando's hatred will eventually consume him; Gabe will tire of skinhead life and have a falling-out with Hando; Davey will fall in love with Gabe and be forced to choose between the two. Luckily, the predictability of the film's central love triangle is of little consequence. Mesmerizing acting, arresting camera work, and the topical appeal of the whole skinhead subculture make the film a tour de force in spite of its hackneyed story line.
Wright directs the low-budget emotional powerhouse with a dizzying urgency and a flurry of lens movement and oblique angles that perfectly convey the reckless, unhinged fury of his subjects. Fight scenes crackle with vitality and menace. The sensory overload and the visceral appeal are overwhelming; a tumultuous skinhead party sequence that intercuts punching, fighting, drinking, and fucking to a hard-core soundtrack is the best cinematic slam dance this side of Sid and Nancy. You may hate Wright's skinheads for their ideology, but you've gotta respect their energy.
The film's graphic, incessant violence and the neo-Nazis' penchant for inflicting it upon unarmed, outnumbered victims are sure to evoke comparisons to A Clockwork Orange. While the Kubrick film is the better of the two, Wright's movie holds its own. Romper Stomper illuminates the terrifying appeal of the charismatic despot -- Hando -- even as it exposes the hollowness and the hopelessness of the leader's beliefs. It's a sure measure of Romper Stomper's achievement that both Australia's White Aryan Resistance and England's Anti-Fascist League have denounced it. You know you're doing something right when both sides of a volatile issue hate you.
Crowe's portrayal of Hando is as marvelous to behold as it is frightening. If the taut-muscled young actor is never actually sympathetic -- it's hard to root for a guy so remorselessly cruel -- at least he makes the attraction Gabe, Davey, and his followers feel toward him understandable. He's a vicious bastard, but he's also damn magnetic. And while Hando's personal philosophy is sick and twisted, at least he's got one. That's more than can be said for his sycophants.
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Davey, on the other hand, is less strident and more conflicted. Daniel Pollock's deeply furrowed brow and haunted eyes effectively convey the character's inner turmoil. (Maybe he wasn't acting; Pollock committed suicide shortly after Romper Stomper wrapped.) And Jacqueline McKenzie takes the role of the rich girl who finds true love on the wrong side of town and gives it a few swift kicks that send the whole madonna-whore stereotype reeling out the door. They're the most riveting threesome since De Niro, Streep, and Walken poached The Deer Hunter.
Which is why it's all the more disconcerting that Wright's story resorts to so many predictable plot turns and cliched situations. At times the movie feels like a remake of West Side Story and at other times it feels like The Warriors. Wright is a better director than he is screenwriter; he leaves it up to his dynamic cast to brush in all the characters' shadings and nuances. Wright's Hando is ruggedly handsome, brooks no dissent from his followers, and has rough sex with Gabe; Davey is soulful, bails out when the violence escalates to actual killing, and makes love to Gabe slowly and seemingly interminably. It is left to Crowe and Pollock to make them believable.
And they do. The film has its own special allure: its topical subject matter, the vital, frenetic visual pyrotechnics (made all the more remarkable by the filmmakers' puny budget), and the fascinating glimpses it provides into the diseased mindset of a doomed but burgeoning subculture. But Romper Stomper is still a love story at heart. A brutal, ferocious, politically charged one, but a love story nonetheless.