Romper Stomper review : As well-produced as it is worrying
The kids are all reich.
Long before he took Hollywood by storm and went fightin' 'round the world, Russel Crowe starred in a little 1992 flick named Romper Stomper. Surrounded by controversy at the time of its release, this R-rated drama centred on the exploits and downfall of a Melbourne-based tribe of neo-Nazi nitwits. Though of modest budget, it managed to put its young Aussie lead on the map with a Best Actor AFI award, and it more or less ruined the red suspenders + Doc Martens combo for anybody into multiculturalism. All that said, it hasn't aged the best, but it has still been dug up and reanimated as a six-parter Stan Original.
Is 2018 the best climate in which to release some long-form entertainment rooted in interracial violence? That's a question I'll leave to the individual viewer. Going in, what concerned me most was this: Romper Stomper, being a less clever version of A Clockwork Orange... in thongs, was more or less held together by Crowe's formidable on-screen presence. Unfortunately, while this revamp does include a number of solid performances, nobody in this new cast manages to eclipse Rus's riveting portrayal of Hando the skinhead psycho.
In Romper Stomper 2.0, creator and director Geoffrey Wright mercifully chooses not to return us to the twisted decade in which opportunistic skinheads attacked Vietnamese shopkeepers (while the rest of Australia gleefully listened to Billy Ray Cyrus's Achy Breaky Heart without a shred of irony). The clock has advanced a quarter-of-a-century, and our new focus is a worryingly familiar breed of racists – hyper-organised “free speech” advocating White Nationalists. The shady group at the centre of this tale is an amalgamation of several real-life organisations that calls itself Patriot Blue, and, basically, their idiotic idea of a great night out is harassing the local Muslim community and brawling with their arch-enemies, a far-left group called Anti-Fasc.
That's the macro fight. The more intimate conflict of this drama is the back-and-forth battle for the soul of Kane (Toby Wallace), an impressionable young man who's the son of Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie), Hando's love interest from the original film. Though she's never going to be mother-of-the-year, Gabe's mended her delinquent ways, done extremely well for herself, and is haunted to see history trying to repeat itself through the son she put up for adoption. Her influence over Kane is minimal, though, as the guidance he craves is coming from his poisonous new father figure, Blake (Lachy Hulme), leader of the aforementioned Pro-Anglo vigilante group. Despite Gabe's attempts to break the cycle, Kane's cool demeanour and propensity for violence are recognised by Patriot Blue and he's soon fast-tracked towards a leadership role and the downward spiral begins.
Some other notable belligerents in this ideological war include Petra (Lily Sullivan), a Marxist lefty forced into sacrificing more and more of her moral high ground as the hostilities deepen, Laila (Nicole Chamoun), an idealistic liberal Muslim who becomes a puppet for both camps, and Jago Zoric (David Wenham) a malevolent right-wing TV talk show host. Being a fan of the original movie, I should also like to say that I appreciated the small catch up moments involving legacy characters, like Cackles (Dan Wyllie) and Magoo (John Brumpton). Honestly, they were eye-opening callback cameos that I did Nazi coming.
The stand-out performance here is, without a doubt, McKenzie's continuation of her 1992 role. Gabe's obviously a woman who has turned her life around, but nowhere near completely. Fancy clothes, new high-rise digs, and having enough conscience to want to reconcile with her son and stop a romper redux notwithstanding, she's quite a dark and complicated woman. Case in point: the way she visits her father (and one-time sexual abuser) in a retirement facility – sometimes to care for him, other times to punish, depending on mood. Also, there are flashes of brilliance in the fiery intervention moments between Gabe and Kane. Admittedly, though Wallace's Kane never feels quite as fully-formed as Crowe's “Aussie De Large” Hando, he delivers an extremely solid performance throughout.
All told, this high-stakes crime thriller is an equal parts riveting and disturbing glimpse into the dark heart of modern extremism. Though it's confronting art, replete with a number of genuinely shocking scenes, the notorious and prescient Romper Stomper time capsule was well worth revisiting. If only to pinpoint one important point: whether you like it or not, somehow, racism has gone mainstream. The fringe-dwelling swastika-lovers have upgraded their backstreet hideouts for southern cross paraphernalia and open-air marches. Worse, the passionate objectors to that sort of bigotry are beginning to counter-attack in increasingly unethical ways (all while the media laps it up and pours fuel on the fire). No matter where you stand on the subject matter, Romper Stomper delivers great television and fine performances; just expect to watch it with a very real sense of unease.