Films characterizing violent subcultures in our society often rely on a personalized treatment of their subject to engage an audience. While no exception, Geoffrey Wright's directorial debut, Romper Stomper , faces the seemingly Herculean task of portraying a subculture whose image and history are anything but sympathetic: neo-Nazis. Given that the neo-Nazis appear here as angry, young skin-heads, Wright seems to have all the ingredients for a frightening documentary about a very real and savage subculture. But this film is fiction, and, ultimately, Romper Stomper's desire to blend a narrative about relationships with a harsh social realism is often more problematic than complementary.
Set in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, the film traces the last days of a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads. As the title suggests, they live off the adrenaline of hate, romping and stomping from one fight to the next. Wright presents them as extremists, living on the margins of a recession-burdened society. They respond to their economic and social situation through rage and violence, protecting what they see as theirs, especially from the Asian immigrants who flood the city and threaten to take over their 'turf.' But these political or economic power or personal redemption. When one of the gang members looks straight into the camera and says "Fuck you!" during the opening attack on three Vietnamese, he dispels any notion that their actions are solely motivated by racism. What they desire is the immediate power and visceral thrill of hate and violence. In these opening sequences, the film promises to provide some interesting insight into what lies behind the skinheads' alienation. In refusing to define itself purely as a social docu-drama, however, the film eschews any exploration of the politics of subcultural alienation for a narrative which only revels in its violent and destructive actions. Hando (Russell Crowe), the magnetic leader of the gang, is the terrifying anti-hero who reveres neo-Nazi ideology. Whether solemnly reading from Mein Kampf or fighting against his enemies, his charisma is seductive, even to the viewer. Never far behind is Davey (Daniel Pollack), Hando's menacingly silent right-hand man. Wright devotes a great deal of time to an examination of the psychological and sexual dynamics between these two men, and their relationship with Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie), the woman they both desire. For Hando, sex and violence are inextricably linked, while Davey struggles to reconcile his homoerotic feelings towards Hando, the man he blindly worships, and his protective adoration for Gabe. But this complex and personal side of the narrative does not complement the larger issues of disenfranchisement and social discord upon which the film is founded. These abrupt shifts manage only to trivialize the actions of the characters and make the personal relationships seem contrived.
Wright's greatest cinematic achievement is in utilizing an imaginative formal vocabulary to evoke Romper Stomper's kinetic energy. During the first half of the film, the camera weaves through the action, an active participant in the adrenaline-charged sequences of fight and flight. Paired with frenetic, jump cut editing and the aggressive beat of 'Oi' music pounding in the background, the energy is as seductive as it is frightening, clearly aiming to draw the spectator into the visceral thrills. When the smoke clears from the energized first half of the film, however, and the love triangle begins, Romper Stomper loses its gripping visceral edge to unfold on a more ambivalent and less trenchant emotional level.
--Cineaste, Spring 1993
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