Barb Wire (1996) – Directed by David Hogan – Starring Pamela Anderson, Temuera Morrison, Victoria Rowell, Jack Noseworthy, Xander Berkeley, Steve Railsback, and Udo Kier.
What do we make of Pamela Anderson?
Unquestionably, Pam Anderson was one of the biggest sex symbols of the 1990s, and at mid-decade (with a few seasons of the international syndicated TV hit, Baywatch, under her belt), the attempt was made to transform Anderson into a movie star.
It didn’t work. According to Box Office Mojo, BARB WIRE made less than $4 million at the box office. Critics ravaged the film (are you surprised?), and it holds a 29% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. It was nominated for six Golden Raspberry Awards: Worst Picture, Worst Actress, Worst Screen Couple (for her breasts), Worst Screenplay, Worst New Star, and Worst Original Song. It only “won” one of the awards, and it went to Miss Anderson (or, as she was known then, Mrs. Anderson Lee; her husband, Tommy Lee, was nominated for Worst Original Song). While she’s appeared in movies since BARB WIRE tanked, she hasn’t been asked to carry a movie solo again.
Filmed at mid-decade, BARB WIRE represents the tipping point in Pam Anderson’s hotness, as it captures the moment when her natural beauty finally gave way to cartoonish enhancements, and “sexy” stopped being something she was and started being something she was manufactured to be. Check out her history of Playboy covers; from 1989-92, she was able to pull off the “girl next door (to the Playboy Mansion)” look, and from 1993-96 she looked like a woman in her prime who was getting dolled up for the night. When you get to 1999, however, there’s a forced, manufactured look to her sexuality. Being sexy is a lot like being cool – the more you have to remind people that you have it, the less you actually have.
Historically, BARB WIRE makes a nice tipping point for Anderson’s arc of sexuality. She’s cast in this movie more for her looks than her acting, and we see this because she has more outfits than emotions on display. That’s perfectly fine. I’ve got no problem with some Cheesecake now and again, and Anderson is a grown woman so if she wants to stuff herself into various kinds of latex … do your thing, Ms. Anderson. What’s disappointing is that BARB WIRE treats her like little more than a doll, shuffling her from one outrageous outfit to the next. Pam Anderson is hot without the strip show, without the hosedown, without the caked-on make-up, without the big hair, but the filmmakers seem so obsessed with the idea of Pam Anderson as a Sex Symbol that it amplifies attributes it doesn’t need to amplify, and forgets about the woman beneath the make-up and latex, let alone the woman beneath the skin.
As for the movie itself, I mentioned yesterday that The Silence of the Lambs has existed in a continual state of greatness, and I’m pleased to say that BARB WIRE has actually aged rather well. It’s still not a very good movie, but it’s kind of fascinating as both an historical document and as a perfectly fine B-movie. Not only is the only Pam Anderson-starring movie out there (unlike Blonde & Blonder, she doesn’t have to share top-billing with Denise Richards, and unlike Stolen Honeymoon, she doesn’t have to share space above the title with her husband), but it’s got a couple of “those guys” in Xander Berkeley and Udo Kier, and it’s got Temuera Morrison, so if you’ve ever wanted to see Pam Anderson make out with Jango Fett, well, where else are you gonna go?
Plus, as Roger Ebert has noted, the story of BARB WIRE is basically a reworking of Casablanca.
Barb Wire (Anderson) runs a nightclub called the Hammerhead in Steel Harbor, the last free city in America, which is being ravaged by civil war. Barb used to be in the resistance movement, but then Axel (Morrison) broke her heart and so she moved to Steel Harber, gave up her natural, solider look for an augmented latex doll, and became an uncaring bad-ass mercenary and bounty hunter.
Barb gets caught between Axel and the resistance on one side and Colonel Pryzer (Steve Railsback) and the government on the other. Pryzer wants to capure Cora D (Victoria Rowell), a former government scientist who knows a big secret about a big weapon. Cora also just so happens to have married Axel, so when he shows up asking Barb for help, he also has to tell the woman whose heart he broke that he’s married to the woman she’ll be risking her life to get across the border.
Barb’s response is to tell them to f*ck off, but she ends up helping them because the Colonel kills her brother (Jack Noseworthy). Xander Berkeley is his usual steady self as the Police Chief who’s caught between Pryzer and Barb, so the film actually does a really good job setting up conflicted personal relationships, and Udo Kier is, well, Udo Kier.
There’s lots of fighting and lots of Pam Anderson wearing leather, and the story is serviceable enough that BARB WIRE actually works as a decent diversion. A good number of the action sequences actually work out just fine, and Barb’s continued insistence that she doesn’t want anyone to call her “babe” gives her one of those invisible lines in the sand that you better not cross.
I’m not surprised that Pam Anderson’s movie career didn’t take off after this because while she might be hot, she doesn’t have a whole lot of screen presence beyond her look (her personality is more geared to TV than the big screen), but she works well enough in this movie.
I hit play on the Netflix stream of BARB WIRE because it was late, I was tired, and I just wanted to be entertained. (Whenever you see me start reviewing movies like BARB WIRE and 2-Headed Shark Attack, you can be sure I’ve got lots of student essays to read.) BARB WIRE is the cinematic equivalent of junk food – having too much of it isn’t a good idea, but when you’re in the mood, it can do the trick. BARB WIRE never forgets that it’s a B-movie and by embracing what it is, the film delivers a fun, campy, decent action movie.