Tank Girl the comic strip is a true brainstorm, a patchwork of edgy drawings that combine and create a montage that belies the scattershot narrative surface. The British export creates its own metasatirical planet, all the better to backlight the herky-jerky antics of Our Hero, a cute, punkish loudmouth genuinely unlike any other. If you're a comics reader, imagine the doomsaying of a Frank Miller opus getting wanked off by the low-level hijinks that give the X-Men their wacky charm. Mix in a whole lot of sexual innuendo, SF style, and you're distilling eau d'Tank Girl.
Tank Girl the movie falls short on all those counts except the wacky charm (Lori Petty exudes great sparkling dollops of wacky charm, much to her credit). At the beginning of the movie, we find the earth has been all but completely dehydrated by a near-miss with a nasty comet. The overwhelming majority of the world's water is controlled by the megacorporate Water & Power, with what's left over coveted by mutant renegades and bootleggers. Tank Girl's boyfriend (surrogate husband) is killed and she and a child (surrogate daughter) are captured in a raid on one of those bootleg compounds. She breaks free of Water & Power's clutches when they try to send her on a suicide mission into mutant territory, but returns (with the help of fellow ex-con Jet Girl) to rescue the kid.
While director Rachel Talalay (previously responsible for the game but forgettable Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare) has a good eye for fun performances, she's not quite up to the action drill (the stops-out MGM-style production of "Let's Do It" is more like it). Meanwhile, there's no sense of the low-tech grit that permeates the original stories -- this one's got lots of gloss and sheen, even if the budget ain't exactly Waterworldesque. While the comic book is very good (not great), the movie is only middling. What went wrong? Tank Girl got prettified by Hollywood (can't you just imagine her disgust at that idea?).
Gone is any sense of the character as vagabond -- by foisting a family off on the poor girl from the very beginning, the movie gives us a lame justification for her motherly wanderlust. By characterizing the bad-ass "rippers" (kangaroo mutants ably crafted for the screen by FX master Stan Winston) as a bunch of likable goofs, we're given obligatory comic relief as well as a sense of injustice at their plight. And while Malcolm McDowell's evil tormentor is a perfect foil for Tank Girl (straight outta central casting!), in the end there are a few too many formulas and too few surprises.
But what did you expect? One reason comic books still enjoy a reputation as an "underground" art form is that you can still find books, like Tank Girl, that fly in the face, surprise, and delight. Tank Girl's brash immodesty and vulgar predilections couldn't be translated intact to a studio film and, indeed, the character we see on screen is but a shadow of the vibrant comic book creation. Someone, of course, is to be commended for giving a green light to the project in the first place. Certainly nothing else at the multiplex looks or sounds quite like Tank Girl. It's a minor stroke to cast Ice-T as a ripper, indistinguishable yet unmistakable underneath his makeup. And Hollywood isn't usually wise enough to hire someone like Courtney Love (Cobain) to oversee a rock soundtrack. This one features jewels like Devo's "Girl U Want" and Joan Jett and Paul Westerberg duetting on "Let's Do It."
Comic book frames are cut into the film while the soundtrack throbs underneath to give Tank Girl the rough-and-tumble momentum that propelled the original stories. In this way, the film reinforces its own second-class status. Artist Jamie Hewlett, after all, didn't have someone else's work to rely on to fill the gaps in his own readers' experience. And while a rock and roll soundtrack may have enhanced your own reading experience, the comic book proved on its own that it had music in its soul.