Beautiful Ladies Of Genre: Pamela Anderson Is Barb Wire (1997)
When people think of Pamela Anderson, a few things spring to mind. Baywatch is probably tops of that list, but her appearances in Playboy or her intimate video with former rocker husband Tommy Lee are probably pretty close behind. I was never really a fan of any of these things. Baywatch took itself too seriously for me to find it funny, and while I admire her for being a groundbreaker in the legitimizing of celebrity sex videos, the less naked Tommy Lee I have in my life the better. When I did start to become a fan is when she appeared on the syndicated TV show VIP as the private eye Vallery Irons. While it was no She Spies (but what is?), VIP was once a staple of my late night weekend viewing. If I hadn't become a fan of that show, it is doubtful that I would have delved back into this film that she made at the height of her orange bathing suited fame. Based on a nine issue Dark Horse Comics miniseries, Barb Wire, a tough, beautiful, blond bounty hunter, seemed a perfect fit for the buxom, fair haired actress, and with some action experience and a new harder edge persona, thanks to her marriage to the aforementioned Mötley Crüe drummer, all that remained was the execution. Couched in a classic story we will all still remember as time goes by, join me for all the bullets, breasts, and bubble baths that make up Barb Wire.
The titular Miss Wire (Anderson) is a former resistance fighter turned mercenary for hire living in the last free city in America, Port Steel Harbor. As a cover for her real business, she runs The Hammerhead, a bar that Obi-Wan would have surely called a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Of all the bars in all the dystopian futures, Cora D (Victoria Powell) and her husband Axel (Tenuera Morrison) come into Barb's. Cora is a defector on the run from the cooperation that have taken over America (with use of Nazi inspired military regalia and torture machines that hook onto breasts), and she and Axel, Barb Wire's former beau, are seeking a pair of contact lenses that will allow the wearer to foil a retinal scan. The lenses fall into the hands of shady bail bondsman Schmitz (Clint Howard), and Colonel Pryzer (Steve Railsback) is dispatched to recover them and prevent Cora's escape to Canada.
Barb Wire is Casablanca. This is not news. In fact even the IMDB synopsis succinctly describes the film as "a post-apocalyptic remake of Casablanca set in a strip club", and that is mostly accurate. Pamela Anderson's character might be all woman, but make no mistake, this is Bogie with boobs and a full clip. There are analogs for every character in Michael Curtiz's classic film. Udo Kier appears as Curly, Barb's head waiter and analogous to Casablanca's Carl played by S.Z Sakall. Clint Howard is Peter Lorre's Ugarte, Sydney Greenstreet's Ferarri is replaced with an overweight mobster called Big Fatso (Andre Rosey Brown), and Xander Berkley's double dealing policeman shares a similar set of values to Claude Rains' Captain Renault. The letters of transit have become contact lenses, and, of course, the romantic entanglements are changed. Instead of being left on a train platform, Barb was abandoned by Axel during an evacuation by the rebels. With some firefights and stunt sequences, Barb Wire deviates from Casablanca greatly, but if you've ever thought what the basic story needed was bare breasts and explosions, then this is your lucky day. I could go on with comparisons all day, but you get the idea.
That brings us around to Barb Wire and Mrs. Anderson Lee (at the time). Eschewing the white dinner jackets Bogart sported as Rick, Anderson parades across the screens in a variety of outfits (or at one point strategically placed bubbles) that seem to defy gravity and certainly push the boundaries of decency. Not that I'm complaining. Pam is a little too Barbie doll for my personal tastes, but she does possess a quality I adore in my on screen heroines. She has an ability to present herself as sweet and feminine while being able to project a strength and determination that shows you she's in charge. While some of Barb Wire's action gymnastics are performed by a painfully obvious double, I never wavered in my belief in the character as a lady who could hold her own in the wild, outlaw city of Port Steel Harbor. Unfortunately, other than Barb Wire and her action role on VIP, Anderson has kept her film roles to self depreciating appearances as "Pam Anderson" or light comedies (though she did get the super hero treatment thanks to Stan Lee's Stripperella series). I would have liked to see her pursue more action roles as she excelled in bringing this classic film into the Grindhouse.
The rest of the cast were equally entertaining with Clint Howard leading the pack. The only weak links were Powell and Morrison as the resistance leaders on the run. Powell had none of the charisma that would engender the audience to want her escape to happen, and Morrison never creates any heat with Anderson so the lost lovers storyline kind of falls flat. Thankfully, while Casablanca's storyline forms a basis, there's not long before someone gets impaled by a shoe, races around in an armored ice cream truck, or explodes in a spectacular way. Barb Wire was the feature debut for music video director David Hogan who had began his career in entertainment at 22 years old as a cover designer for Memphis based Stax Records. Hogan had parlayed his experience as second unit director on Batman Forever to get a shot at Barb Wire, and for my money, as a cult film, it really scores. I don't know how much of the Casablanca idea was brought over from the Dark Horse comic, but handling it on the screen could have felt clumsy. Instead, the sleazy homage added layers of enjoyment to the classic film in a way that a straight up period remake probably could not engender.
I'm very glad to have thought about including Barb Wire for this special edition of B.L.O.G because in a way it is a bridge between two kinds of film that are near and dear to my heart.Casablanca is one of my favorite classic Hollywood films, easily in my top five of all time, and Barb Wire, while it doesn't rank as high empirically, is a film I've watched time and again and each time I revel in its b-movie glory. The same story, told two ways, and both equally as wonderful. It's the same thingthat can be said of such films such as Outland (High Noon), Flight Plan (The Lady Vanishes), Switchblade Sisters (Hamlet), Four Brothers (The Sons of Katie Elder), Black Caesar (Little Caesar), and countless others. When genre film mines this classic material, the results are often very entertaining because audience familiarity with these staple stories in cinematic culture allows the director to add flourishes and notes to embellish the tale in his own way. In the case of Barb Wire, that meant keeping the Nazi uniforms, but it also meant skintight leather and bubble baths. Now, would I have liked to see Humphrey Bogart get out of the tub with foam covering his naughty bits? Who among us wouldn't? But in this life, we will have to settle for Pam.