Romper Stomper Review

Footscray, near Melbourne. Hando (Russell Crowe) is the leader of a gang of neo-Nazi white supremacist skinheads. The gang has declared war on the local Vietnamese community. Then Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie), a disturbed young woman, an incest victim and an epileptic, comes into the life of Hando and his lieutenant Davey (Daniel Pollock, who died before the film was completed).

Romper Stomper has been a highly controversial film since its release in 1992. At home, it tapped into anxieties about Australia’s history of racism. Some people claimed, erroneously, that it brought violence and sex back into Australian cinema. The film’s release worldwide was accompanied by condemnation and calls for its banning. I remember going to see it at its opening weekend at the Prince Charles cinema, just off Leicester Square in London. Members of the Anti-Nazi league were protesting outside, and there were also several skinheads in attendance. The case for the defence (as expressed by director Geoffrey Wright on the DVD commentary) states that this neither endorses nor condemns Hando and his gang’s ideology, just presents it as it is and leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions. That may well have been the intention, and if so it’s an honourable one, but I’m not entirely sure that Wright and his crew achieved what they set out to do.

There’s no doubt that Romper Stomper is an extremely well-made film. Shot in Super 16mm, the film looks much better and less grainy than many such films. Wright and his DP Ron Hagen shoot most of the film in a bluish light, and the camera is always in the right place. It’s clear that Wright has a supreme command of film technique but I’m uncertain that he hasn’t fallen into the common trap of using technique for its own sake. It’s not hard to make a street fight look exciting, especially when you add several driving Oi music tracks over it, even more so when you intercut a scene of violence with a graphic sex scene. This command of technique is displayed even more in Wright’s next film, Metal Skin, which shares some of the same themes as Romper Stomper – disaffected youth, dysfunctional families – and adds road racing and Satanism to the mix.

Romper Stomper was a significant staging post in Russell Crowe’s ascent to world stardom, and it’s easy to see why. He dominates every scene he’s in, to the extent where it can be hard to realise that Hando is actually the villain. Jacqueline McKenzie and Daniel Pollock are excellent, but they’re overshadowed by Crowe. In a way, Crowe makes Hando so charismatic that he unbalances the film, which becomes one half in love with what it purports to condemn. Scorsese didn’t quite avoid that pitfall in Goodfellas, and for all his skill Wright is no Scorsese. Wright may be definite that the progression of his film shows, without preaching, that what is good survives and what is immoral leads to self-destruction, but I’m not sure that his film doesn’t undermine its own argument.

Romper Stomper won AFI Awards for Crowe as Best Actor, for Best Music (John Clifford White) and Best Sound. This was Wright’s second feature (I haven’t seen his first, 1988’s Lover Boy). He’s followed it with an interesting box-office flop, Metal Skin, and then went to Hollywood where he made a so-so horror film, Cherry Falls.

Roadshow’s DVD (Region 4 only) has an anamorphic transfer in the correct ratio of 1.85:1. The film may have been shot in Super 16mm but it doesn’t necessarily look it. The image is a little soft and grainy in places, and some shadow detail could be better, but the high contrast is intentional. This is more than acceptable. Some minor changes have been made to the visuals for DVD release.

The film’s original Dolby Stereo soundtrack has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 with generally good results. The surrounds tend to be used to carry the score, and are used for ambience. The subwoofer is mostly used to fill in the bass in the music.

There are twenty-four chapter stops. Optional English HOH subtitles are provided for th feature only, though there are some burned into the film to translate occasional Vietnamese dialogue.

The main extra is an audio commentary, in which Geoffrey Wright is joined by Bill Murphy (editor), Chris Miller (makeup), Daniel Scharf (producer), and John Clifford White (music). The result is a highly entertaining commentary, in which Wright and his collaborators talk through the making of the film and its intentions and achievements.

Also on the disc are a set of interviews made in 1992 for the film’s original release. There’s an apologetic note on the DVD concerning the quality of the video footage, though frankly it’s quite acceptable. The interviewees are Wright, standing incongruously in front of a poster for Fried Green Tomatoes, Russell Crowe, Jacqueline McKenzie and Tony Lee (who plays the leader of the Vietnamese gang). You can play all the interview footage from beginning to end. It runs 28:55 and is full-frame.

The trailer is also 4:3 and runs 2:55. It’s a long, rather pompous effort that is, as usual, full of spoilers. This is the Australian release trailer, as it plays up the adults-only R rating that Romper Stomper received. Text biofilmographies are provided for Crowe, Pollock, McKenzie, Lee, Scharf, Ian Pringle (producer) and the late Ron Hagen. Finally, there is a 31-picture stills gallery, navigable in a simple back-and-forth manner.

Opinions are so sharply divided about Romper Stomper that the film has genuinely become one that you should see and make up your own mind about. So, providing that you’re not too squeamish or easily offended, I’d recommend this DVD of a film which I have my own reservations about. The extras are a little on the thin side, but the commentary is well worth hearing.

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