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Romper Stomper: Special Edition

Fox Home Video

Starring Russell Crowe, Daniel Pollock, and Jacqueline McKenzie

Written and directed by Geoffrey Wright

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

Imagine, for a moment, that it's 1951. Just for a minute — work with me on this one, okay? All right, it's 1951 and you sit down in your local movie house to enjoy Elia Kazan's film of the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire. The actor playing the lead character of Stanley Kowalski is a young man named Marlon Brando, in only his second film. As you experience this new talent's tour de force performance — so physical and charismatic that he practically leaps right off the screen into your lap — there's a voice in your head that keeps getting louder and louder, asking, "Just who the hell is that guy, anyway?!"

Such was the response I had when seeing Russell Crowe in 1992's Romper Stomper. Crowe already had a handful of Australian film credits when he made this movie, but it was the first time most in the U.S. had seen him, and it was the sort of break-out role that launches a career: at the 1993 Seattle International Film Festival, Crowe won the Best Actor award for his work in Romper Stomper and another film he made that same year, Hammers over the Anvil. He also won Best Actor awards from the Film Critics' Circle of Australia and the Variety Club Heart Awards. This is the movie that made Russell Crowe a movie star.

Romper Stomper is a simple, brutal film about the final days of a group of neo-Nazi Melbourne skinheads. We meet them at the top of the film in an unexpectedly violent attack on three Vietnamese youths in a train station, a scene that effectively sets the tone for the film while introducing us to what these boys are all about. Hando (Crowe) and his band are obsessed with immigrants from Southeast Asia, who they see buying up local businesses and — in their view — taking over their country. On the dole, living in abandoned buildings, they take out their powerlessness and frustrations on Southeast Asians they turn on in the streets, using bats, fists and knives to release their unfocused anger. When Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie), a disturbed, rich, epileptic girl hooks up with Hando, she catches the eye of Hando's slightly-more-sensitive best mate, Davey (Daniel Pollock). With the skinheads getting sloppier and less focused, and the dynamic between Davey and Hando changing, the film examines not only the reasoning (if you can call it that) behind neo-Nazi behavior, but also the themes of loyalty and friendship.

Romper Stomper has drawn a lot of comparisons to A Clockwork Orange, mostly because of that first scene in the train station and Crowe's droog-like costuming. But the comparison ends there. Where A Clockwork Orange is an elegant, complicated film by a master filmmaker, Romper Stomper is stark, straightforward and almost documentary in nature. Shot on Super 16 in six weeks, the movie's raw, indie feel lends more substance to the story than if the film had better production values — it allows us to feel as if we're really peeking in on these young people's lives.

Which is where Romper Stomper really works. It's not an especially complicated film (remove the neo-Nazi trappings and it's the classic tale of two warrior-soldiers, fighting side-by-side, their friendship torn apart by a woman) but the questions it brings up in the viewer are remarkable. The protagonists are truly horrible people, living like amoral animals and emerging from their den only to wreak violence on the innocent. But by bringing us into their lives in such an intimate fashion and showing us their fears, their sense of family and, yes, their values, the audience starts to actually sympathize with them. An especially gripping segment of the film involves the skinheads doing battle with — then running from — a much larger group of very angry, armed Vietnamese youths. It's something of a shock to discover that you're actually rooting for them to get away. And disturbing, in that it brings up questions of one's own values, that it's so easy to sympathize with them. Some critics were harsh on writer/director Geoffrey Wright's supposed ambivalence in offering no strong moral position in the film; personally, I believe it's the film's greatest strength. The characters in Romper Stomper are despicable people who do despicable things — there's no need to beat the audience over the head with an additional lesson that "Racial Hatred is a Bad Thing." We get it, in spades. That we know that their actions are evil, and yet we see their humanity as well, is precisely why Romper Stomper is so very powerful.

Russell Crowe is the center of Romper Stomper and, as previously stated, he's brilliant. Swaggering, violent and charismatic, he's identifiable as the leader from the moment you see his face. The most disturbing element of my first viewing of Crowe in Romper Stomper was that I found him so repellant, and at the same time so devastatingly sexy. Now that we've seen so much more of Crowe the actor, that reaction will be forever lost to future viewers of the film. To me, who had never seen him before, he was Hando. It took L.A. Confidential for me to stop thinking of him as "the guy from Romper Stomper." Other roles in the film are filled by equally compelling actors, like McKenzie's psycho-girl Gabe and Pollock's turn as the brooding, conflicted Davey (and only some of that brooding may have been acting: having ended an on-set romance with McKenzie, Pollock — a heroin addict — threw himself under a train not long after filming was completed).

Fox's two-disc Romper Stomper: Special Edition comes with a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1, and the film has a gorgeously re-mastered picture (almost too gorgeous, but more on that below). This disc has a fair number of extras, but it suffers from poor design. For starters, the features are unnecessarily split between two discs: Disc 1 offers the movie with or without English subtitles and choice of audio, plus optional director commentary or isolated music track. Click on the other menu items and you get the message "Insert Disc 2 for these features." How annoying is that? Disc Two offers the original theatrical trailer; snippets from print reviews; cast and crew notes; three new Geoffrey Wright interviews (actually, it's all the same interview broken into three parts in which he discusses making the film, researching skinhead culture and the critical response to the movie); 1992 interview sound bites from Wright, Crowe, McKenzie, and actor Tony Lee; a "facts and photos" section with stills and trivia; and a demonstration of how the film was restored for this release.

This last feature is problematic for two reasons. The first is purely aesthetic: while it's interesting to see how much a film can be cleaned up digitally, it's notable that they may have gone overboard with it. Shot as it was on Super 16 with blue filters, the original film was very raw, as evidenced in the examples from the 1992 videotape transfer of the film (formatted to 4 x 3 for standard TV viewing). The world these characters inhabit was presented as cold and dirty, and the low-budget, cinema verité style added to the realness and intimacy of the story. Granted, the video transfer was far from ideal but, aspect ratio aside, it wasn't a bad representation of the film in its theatrical release. In side-by-side comparison of how the film was restored in HDV with scene-by-scene color correction, you can see that not only were scratches and dust cleaned up and the picture sharpened remarkably, but the colors all became warmer as well, and everything looks much cleaner. In the first example shown, even their car becomes less beat up — scratches were digitally removed from the vehicle itself. Does this make the movie more appealing to a broader market? Undoubtedly. Does it change the mood of the film? To a small degree, yes it does.

The second problem with this feature is a technical one. Offered within the section are three before-and-after comparisons from the film. However, once you're in this feature, you have to view them all sequentially — they're read as individual features and you can't skip back to the previous one nor can you choose them individually from the menu. A small quibble, but it was an annoyance.

— Dawn Taylor

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