The WTF? Worst Films Extravaganza Presents: Barb Wire (1996)

David Hogan

Pamela Anderson - Barbara “Barb Wire” Kopetski
Temuera Morrison - Axel Hood
Victoria Rowell - Dr. Corrina “Cora D” Devonshire
Jack Noseworthy - Charlie Kopetski
Xander Berkeley - Alexander Willis
Udo Kier - Curly
Steve Railsback - Colonel Pryzer

Genre - Action/Science Fiction/Comic Books

Running Time - 98 Minutes

In the mid-1990s, there was probably no bigger sex symbol on the planet than one Pamela Anderson. While already a Playboy centerfold and appearing frequently on Married… With Children and Home Improvement, it wasn’t until she joined Baywatch that Anderson became a household name and the fantasy of many - including yours truly. As a young teenager during this time, I didn’t admire her for her acting skills, but for her beauty and buxom figure. She had a seductive appeal I couldn’t turn away from, completely invested in whatever project she was a part of.

It was because of Anderson that I even knew what Barb Wire was. The character appeared in 9 issues, plus a mini-series, between the years 1994 and 1996 - a bar owner/bounty hunter who did jobs to pay for her bar and protect people who needed her help. As someone who never read the comics or even knew anyone who talked about them, it’s strange that it was even greenlit as a film project. But in 1996, BARB WIRE was released upon moviegoers, hoping that Anderson’s fanbase would come out in droves. Plus the 1990s weren’t the comic book movie haven the last 20 years have been. Studios were still figuring out how to present these characters, struggling with balancing between the source material and the Hollywood business model of making money through cinema. While only a few comic book films stood out from the pack [BATMAN RETURNS, THE CROW and BLADE among them], BARB WIRE was one of the comic book adaptations that neither audiences or critics cared much for, only making over a third of its budget back and getting nominated for Razzie Awards.

Twenty-years have passed since BARB WIRE was released, as well as the last time I even watched this film. Some bad comic book adaptations have gained a level of cult status and can be appreciated in modern times, but BARB WIRE is still seen as one of the worst films of all time and is currently the 48th film on IMDB’s Bottom List. Is BARB WIRE as bad as many have claimed? Is it as bad as I had remembered it?

It’s the year 2017 and the United States is currently dealing with a Second American Civil War. The future has become dystopian, as the former government are now Congressional fascists wanted to control the country with an iron fist, while there is a small number of resistance fighters trying to revolt. Only one city in the United States is considered a free haven for both sides of the fight - Steel Harbor - which also happens to be the home of one Barb Wire (Pamela Anderson), a bar owner of the Hammerhead nightclub who keeps her business running through her job as an undercover bounty hunter. Even though there’s obviously a right side, she remains neutral when it comes to the new Civil War to maintain some peace within the chaos around her.

Things for Barb change when her ex-lover Axel Hood (Temuera Morrison) shows up at Hammerhead needing her help. He’s married to a scientist named Cora D (Victoria Rowell), who the Congressionals have targeted, and both need a pair of retina contacts to get past any retinal scans that would easily allow their escape to a Canadian sanctuary. When both sides cause trouble for her allies and her business, Barb is forced to choose a side.

I’m just gonna come out and say this - BARB WIRE is not a good film in the slightest. And it honestly deserves its low ranking on IMDB because this film has a lot of problems one cannot overlook. But there are a few good things that don’t make BARB WIRE a complete failure.

I think the best thing about BARB WIRE is the film’s production design and slick direction. The film has this 90s MTV music video aesthetic, with quick edits and muted colors. Steel Harbor is your typical dystopian city, looking as gritty as you’d expect out of a comic book film during this time [BATMAN's Gotham City, THE CROW’s Detroit and SPAWN’s New York City]. It matches the noir tone of the story, visually making one understand why characters behave as scummy as they do and why Barb Wire wants an exit strategy to a better place. Even the computer effects look like they were pulled out of a 90’s time capsule. 

And while the story feels a bit rushed at times, the pacing by director David Hogan is decent enough where the film doesn’t drag all that much. Hogan even manages to craft some good action sequences in a 90s syndicated TV action show sort of way. BARB WIRE looks sort of cheap, but I find some charm in that as the comic book wasn’t a major deal to begin with. The lower budget of $9 million actually helps the film rather than hurt it, in my opinion. While everything else that’s major about BARB WIRE quickly falls apart in front of your eyes, the visuals save the movie from being a total bomb. Not a bad job for a director who was picked to save the film [he tried] because the first director had no idea what he was doing with the project.

The music is also very 90s, with a sort of industrial rock-metal sound that dates the film quite a bit. That being said, I liked most of the music of the 1990s and this soundtrack is no exception. I’m not saying this is the greatest music I’ve ever heard, but it fits BARB WIRE’s world extremely well. The opening credits [which I’ll get more into detail in a bit] play out to Gun’s cover of the popular Cameo song, “Word Up.” It’s not a bad cover, although it’s weird to hear once the film starts. We also get a great cover of War’s “Spill the Wine” by late INXS singer Michael Hutchence, Hagfish’s cover of Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City” and “Planet Boom”, a song by Pamela Anderson’s then-husband Tommy Lee of Motley Crue. It’s not a classic soundtrack, but the music stood out as one of the better things about this movie.

As for the acting, there aren’t that many compliments I could make when it comes to BARB WIRE. However, there were some decent actors who tried to make the script watchable. In particular, Jack Noseworthy as Barb’s brother Charlie was particularly good. Even though he probably knew he was on a sinking ship, Noseworthy makes the character relatable and sympathetic as a blind man who wants to bring the light back out of the darkness that surrounds Steel Harbor. I liked his interactions with the other actors, bringing a level of snark and attitude to the role. He was less of a comic book character and more of a real person, which I appreciated. I will also say that Clint Howard is pretty fun in his small role as Schmitz and Udo Kier’s odd performance as Barb’s right-hand man Curly did enough to make me interested in his backstory.

And believe it or not, the concept of BARB WIRE is actually kind of relevant on the surface. The film takes place in 2017 within the United States during a state of crisis where two sides are conflicting over how the country should move forward under new leadership.

Sound familiar?

I’m not going to get into politics or religion or anything that will cause a major debate. But it’s eerie that BARB WIRE almost nailed what’s going on in America right now on the surface. Hopefully we won’t have to kill ourselves over a pair of retina contacts and escape to another country to make things better.

As for the bad stuff, where to start? I guess discussing the terrible acting would be a good place. While she may look the part, Pamela Anderson is really bad in BARB WIRE. I can only judge by the film itself since I know nothing about the character this film is adapting. But I can’t imagine anyone being a fan of BARB WIRE by the way Anderson portrays the role. She seems bored throughout, acting stoically and speaking in this low, gruff voice that doesn’t suit her at all. She’s trying to be both the hero and femme fatale in a modern noir action film and it never clicks believably. She handles the action stuff decently, but there are moments where you can tell she’s uncomfortable with some of the choreography involved. She looks great in tight outfits though.

Most of the supporting cast are disappointing, considering they’re better actors than Anderson and she still steals their spotlight. Temuera Morrison is miscast as Axel Wood, Barb’s former love interest who needs her help. Morrison doesn’t have any sort of chemistry with Anderson, making the idea of a relationship between them pretty laughable. He also doesn’t get to do a whole lot until the final act and it still isn’t a whole lot. Victoria Rowell, of The Young and the Restless fame, is just as bland as Cora D. She doesn’t really bring anything to the role, which is barely one-dimensionally written. Xander Berkeley gets a bit more to do as a corrupted police officer that antagonizes Barb, but he hams it up more than he should. If the film was taken less seriously and had fun with itself, Berkeley would fit right in. While he seems in on the joke, the film never tells him to be funny. And Steve Railsback plays your typical comic book villain who twirls his mustache and overdoes the camp to compensate for the fact that the film should be silly fun but never is. It’s not a strong cast and it’s a shame they try not to be either.

Another strike against BARB WIRE? Taking a comic book concept and subtly turning it into an action remake of the 1942 classic, CASABLANCA! Seriously, who thought it was a good idea in thinking that Pamela Anderson is a logical successor to Humphrey Bogart? And in case you haven’t figured it out - Temuera Morrison is Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund, Victoria Rowell is Paul Henreid’s Victor Lazlow, Xander Berkeley is Claude Rains’ Louis Renault, and Steve Railsback is Conrad Veidt’s Major Strasser. I guess Jack Noseworthy and Udo Kier are Sam and Carl respectively. The original film never received any credit for this until people who actually watched BARB WIRE figured it out and saw how similar the two films are.

The problem is that CASABLANCA works to this day because it’s plot driven and carries a lot of substance during World War II. Hell, CASABLANCA still resonates today in a lot of ways. You cared about the characters, their relationships and the struggles they faced to escape tyranny and find a level of freedom many felt wasn’t possible. You also felt Rick’s journey from being neutral to wanting to help his ex-lover and her husband live a better life, even if it meant sacrificing the one true love of his life to another man and place. Each character had personality and real reasons to behave the way they did within the context of the story.

BARB WIRE may be more about action, but that can only go so far when the story itself isn’t strong enough to support it. BARB WIRE is about style over substance, but that doesn’t matter when the style isn’t even as good as other comic book adaptations that had been released prior to it and especially compared to those that came right after. The characters of CASABLANCA are in BARB WIRE, but nothing is fleshed out enough for anyone to care about what will happen to each of them. Barb and Axel supposedly had a past relationship, but we never see flashbacks showing them loving each other and struggling with being together. The film’s “letters of transit” are these retina contacts that disrupt retina scanners in order to gain passage to anywhere in the world. But the film just treats them as a plot device to get to the film’s ending rather than something that should really matter to the characters involved. Axel and Cora D want these contacts to escape, but they never seem proactive about it. The villains want them destroyed, but their evil egos take precedence over doing their jobs.

Barb herself is not a likable main character at all, doing selfish things to maintain her club and please her own agenda. When people really need her help, she still would rather please herself until someone she’s close with dies because of her actions. Even though she finally realizes what the right thing is after that, her change of opinion doesn’t feel earned at all. It’s like someone watched CASABLANCA and did a cliff notes version but with more guns and boobs. A part of me admires the balls that someone attempted to remake such a Hollywood classic for a modern audience. But the other part thinks it’s kind of insulting that anyone felt that adding comic book action and hot women would improve on CASABLANCA, when there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.

I also think BARB WIRE, while not a total success, marketed Pamela Anderson in the best way possible that Hollywood would probably allow for the mainstream. They knew people weren’t going to see the film because of her acting, so they blatantly used her sex appeal to get as much interested people in theaters. And the film itself doesn’t try to hide her best assets. The opening credit sequence is Anderson stripping in a tight leather outfit that could barely contain her breasts while water pours all over her. In fact, every outfit in this film has no trouble revealing how huge her breasts are, giving the audience a peek of cleavage and side boob as much as possible. And let’s not forget that scene where Anderson stands up from a bubble bath with only soap covering all of her naughty bits.

The film tries to make Barb seductive, but it’s more a tease than anything. For a film that tries to capitalize on Anderson’s sex appeal, it’s extremely tame and limp. Besides, you can just Google her name nowadays and get way more explicit shots and footage of the 90s star. But back in 1996, this is probably the best way to get your rocks off if you didn’t own any of her previous Playboys. In the internet age, her tease of nudity isn’t even worth marketing. But I’m sure it worked somewhat all those years ago.

Is BARB WIRE the worst film I’ve ever seen? Not even close. Is BARB WIRE the worst comic book adaptation out there? Not at all. But it’s also not even close to being a good film, as it’s nothing but a lame CASABLANCA remake but with more guns and boobs. For a film that’s marketed on its sex appeal, it’s pretty prudish for the most part. The acting, especially by Pamela Anderson, drags the film down big time since she’s not a star that’s meant to carry an action film like this on her shoulders. Most of her supporting actors, who would have elevated a film like this, aren’t given much to do since their measurements don’t compare to the film’s star. BARB WIRE does have a good 90s visual look going for it though, with decent enough action sequences and an industrial rock-metal soundtrack that’ll keep most audiences somewhat engaged. And its dystopian concept resonates today, as America is sort of in a midst of a Civil War socially and politically if you really think about it. Unless you’re a huge Pamela Anderson fan and need to see every comic book adaptation out there, then check out BARB WIRE. Otherwise, call the film “babe” and let it knock you into unconsciousness. You’ll get more out of that than watching this flick.

1 Howl Outta 4

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