What are these sick bastards doing? Worshipping the Third Reich, threatening to chop people’s legs off with an ax, mourning decapitated mothers, and terrorizing the Vietnamese in a Melbournian suburb.
Is the villain any good? The heavily tattooed, permanently unshaven Hando (Crowe) is a neo-Nazi so committed to white supremacy that he attacks a Jap-made car and refuses to eat pasta because it’s ‘bloody wog crap.’ Never seen without his skinhead clobber, he probably sleeps in his Doc Martens. As expected, his bedroom is adorned with far right memorabilia. Terrified of becoming a ‘white coolie’ in his own country, he objects to ‘boatloads of human trash’ arriving on his Footscray doorstep. “I want people to know I’m proud of my white history and white blood,” he says. “One day that might be all I have. I don’t wanna go the same way as the fucking Abo.”
Hando is not all talk, though. He will beat up stray Vietnamese, especially if his gang outnumbers them. Oh, he might kill the odd Asian shop attendant, too.
He continually looks down on others, apparently oblivious to the fact he’s standing on nothing. The man’s a violent, parasitical dole-bludger, attacking workers who are actually contributing to Australia and trying to build a life. It’s fair to say self-awareness is not Hando’s strongpoint. There’s also a lingering suspicion he’s gay, given the homoerotic charge underpinning his dealings with his right-hand man and second-in-command, Davey (Pollock).
People often confuse a villain’s charisma with the glorification of whatever shit they’re into. Romper Stomper certainly copped such flak back in the early nineties. Nope. Hando’s undeniably magnetic here, but nothing can disguise he’s a loser of the first order. There’s a straight line between his beliefs, actions and demise.
Hollywood beckoned for Crowe on the basis of this tremendous performance.
How do the lovely ladies fare? As expected, neo-Nazi skinhead society is not an egalitarian paradise. The gang’s terribly-dressed two girlfriends are more hangers-on than anything else, constantly ordered around and treated with contempt. They are fucked and verbally abused at whim. On a good day they merely cook, cry over their fallen men, and get slapped. For the most part they don’t seem to grasp they’re neck-deep in a misogynistic world, only opting to flee when Hando vows firearm-backed violence after being driven out of his HQ by some seriously pissed-off immigrants.
Still, this pair of Aryan ladies fares better than others. Vietnamese women simply get punched in the face without hesitation.
Things get more complicated with the arrival of the seriously messed-up, epileptic rich girl, Gabrielle (McKenzie). She’s a hippy-like free spirit who spouts bollocks about reincarnation, but can still be vengeful, turned on by aggro and more than capable of putting the boot in. She doesn’t get an easy ride, though. There’s one excellent scene where Hando’s reading aloud a treasured excerpt from Mein Kampf and she’s got this dreamy, childlike look, as if being seduced by Hitler’s poison. Gabrielle’s power slowly grows, eventually becoming pivotal.
How skuzzy are the men? I think this is another case of toxic masculinity. Hando’s gang is a snarling bunch of super-aggressive adolescents heavily into binge drinking, partying, crime, property destruction, misogyny and pranks. They can’t even dance nicely. When a neo-Nazi Canberra contingent comes to visit, it’s to sell Hitler Youth memorabilia rather than discuss the opera or ballet.
There’s a telling moment when a former skinhead returns to the gang’s HQ after joining the navy. Hando ridicules the sight of his non-shaven head and asks: “You enjoy being cannon fodder for the system?” The ex-skinhead can only shrug. “It’s a job,” he replies before half-heartedly returning a Hitler salute. Here we can see he’s rejected the dead-end existence of neo-Nazi life and is starting to grow up. After all, you can only be a racist tool for so long. Sooner or later you’ve gotta get on with the mundane (but ultimately more constructive) stuff like becoming a working stiff. Otherwise you just end up dead or in prison.
Outside of the gang, things don’t improve much as Gabrielle’s father is an incestuous predator. Perhaps the only decent bloke in the whole shebang is a pub landlord who chucks out underage kids and is happy to serve ‘gooks’.
Would the violence make a vicar faint? Romper Stomper has long had a reputation for nastiness, but it’s probably undeserved. Despite a large amount of fights, there’s no real graphic stuff. However, street violence is introduced in the opening scene, helping ensure the threat of imminent head-splitting hangs over the pic’s entirety. We get a lengthy pitched battle, the realism of which is amped up by the tremendous use of a handheld camera. There’s simmering hatred on all sides that’s certainly not dissipated when the cops turn up. Racist punk songs litter the soundtrack with lyrics like: ‘Smack him if he’s yellow/Smack him if he’s black/Smack him till he fucks off and doesn’t come back’. The whole vibe of the movie is caught early on when a member of Hando’s gang gives the camera the finger and bellows ‘fuck off!’ straight down it.
Vicars probably don’t like that sort of thing.
How fucked-up is this film? With its energy, verve, convincing sense of place and unpredictable turns, Romper Stomper is among the best Aussie movies. It’s an uncompromising, well written and smartly directed ninety-five minutes that avoids finger-wagging and easy moralizing. The three central performances are dynamite, although it’s especially sad to know the depressed, 23-year-old Pollock committed suicide before getting to see the completed film. With lines like “We came to wreck everything and ruin your life. God sent us” it’s the best skinhead flick I’ve seen. It’s far, far better than American History X.