The Australian filmmaker Geoffrey Wright knew that Russell Crowe was perfect for the part of a neo-Nazi skinhead in "Romper Stomper" as soon as he saw him play a dishwasher in the film "Proof" a couple of years ago. "I didn't know anything about Russell at the time," the director recalled. "But I thought he was the most menacing dishwasher I'd ever seen. There's always something threatening about him on screen. Right after I'd seen 'Proof,' I called my producers and said, 'We may have our boy.' "
"Romper Stomper," Mr. Wright's first feature film and Mr. Crowe's ninth, is a love story set among Australian skinhead gangs. In the movie, which opens on Wednesday at the Film Forum, the 29-year-old Mr. Crowe brings his menacing side to the fore as Hando, leader of the pack. The grim-faced Hando has a paranoid view of the world and a violent streak. Bashing Asians is his favorite sport. He reads "Mein Kampf" to his girlfriend, Gabe, raging over what he sees as the demise of Anglo-Saxons.
All around him, signs of an increasingly multi-ethnic culture -- Japanese cars, Indian fabric, Italian food -- mock his own squalid existence. He could be just another bigot, except that Mr. Crowe seeks to invest Hando with a toxic charisma, making him hard to ignore.
When "Romper Stomper" was released in Australia last year, it caused an uproar. Likened to Stanley Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange," it sparked considerable debate about cinematic representations of violence, and the director was accused of glamorizing fascism. One critic demanded that the negative be burned; another pronounced the film a masterpiece. Although "Romper Stomper" broke box-office records in the country and won a number of local awards, Paul Keating, the Australian Prime Minister, condemned it as morally bankrupt.
In Melbourne, where the film is set, politicians called for a boycott, charging that "Romper Stomper" presented an ugly view of their city. And the actors playing skinheads were arrested one night by police who mistook them for a real gang.
Perhaps understandably, all the fuss has left Mr. Crowe, who is visiting New York to promote the film, somewhat wary. During a recent conversation about his character's motivation, he paused to say, "Listen, by saying this I'm not agreeing with his solutions, right?"
It would be hard to confuse Hando and Mr. Crowe. The actor, who was wearing a blue suit, highly polished black shoes and neat argyle socks, was the picture of respectability. His preference is for meaty roles, and in this respect he thinks that "Romper Stomper" was a godsend. "You don't get the opportunity to play characters that extreme very often," he said.
For "Romper Stomper" he adopted a skinhead esthetic -- shaved head, tattoos and Doc Martens boots -- which elicited strong reactions from strangers. He remembers going to a genteel bar one night to play pool and seeing patrons step out of his way. "I wanted to see why people did these things, what the buzz was like," he explained. "It's certainly heady stuff. You can understand why, if there's nothing else for you, why adrenaline becomes addictive."
Mr. Wright agreed that evil can be attractive. Speaking by telephone from Melbourne, where he is finishing his second film, he said he wanted to transport audiences into the middle of a gang and invite a mixture of emotions; excitement, curiosity and, at the end, revulsion at their own feelings.
For Mr. Crowe "Romper Stomper" reflects aspects of Australia unseen in its popular period films. "For many, many years Australians have promoted this rural screen mythology that we were a country of horsemen and girls in floral flowing dresses," he said. "It's a lie. Films like this are trying to redress the balance."
Mr. Crowe has a bluntness that has ruffled feathers in Sydney, where he now lives. He has been known to refer to unflattering reviews as tomorrow's fish-and-chips wrapping.
For his part, he is confident about his acting. "I'm good at my gig," he said. Others agree. Anthony Hopkins, who appeared with Mr. Crowe in the 1992 film "The Efficiency Expert" said, "He reminds me of myself as a young actor," an allusion to Mr. Crowe's dedicated work habits. George Ogilvie, the director who cast him as a lovestruck sheep farmer in "The Crossing" in 1990, sees echoes of James Dean in Mr. Crowe's screen presence.
Born in New Zealand, the actor is regarded as a fast-rising talent who shuns romantic leads for parts that let him exercise versatility. Although he has been performing on stage and television since he was 6, he worked as a waiter, a bingo caller and a rock singer ("Singing's a pretty loose term for what comes out of my mouth") before appearing in his first film, "Blood Oath," three years ago.
He has worked constantly since, picking up Australian Film Institute awards for "Romper Stomper" and "Proof." He is preparing to appear in a Australian stage musical called "The Offical Tribute to the Blues Brothers." He thinks he may have been too busy.
"Acting's got a lot to do with observation and spending time in the real world," he noted. "My life is totally unreal because all I've been doing is catching planes and living in hotels and focusing on whoever I was playing at that time."