Bad Movies We Love: Barb Wire (1996)
In the 90’s, Pamela Anderson Lee was a pretty big star thanks to Baywatch and the wonders of plastic surgery. Lee tried to capitalize on her sex symbol status with a movie based on a comic book almost no one had heard of, Barb Wire. The actual source material was pretty thin. Barb Wire didn’t yet have her own series. She was part of a line-wide launch that… nevermind. The point is, the character didn’t have much of a story to tell so when the comic was adapted to the big screen the writers stole the plot from Casablanca and cast Lee in the Bogie role. Less than a year after the movie’s release, Movieline had already dubbed Barb Wire a “Bad Movie We Love”.
The past two years have been Bad Movie manna for fans of deliriously cheesy sci-fi thrillers set in the near future, what with Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days and John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A. But the ultimate booby prize in this genre we call “Aschlockalypse Now” goes to Barb Wire. And what boobies!
From the opening Flashdance-esque strip club routine, in which millions of gallons of water are sprayed onto heroine Pamela Anderson Lee’s bared casabas, Barb Wire is a perky paean to the wonders of silicone. The unrated video version (which we’d call “the director’s cut” if there were any sign there’d been a director), contains miles more footage of Lee’s nipples looking as sharp and deadly as her stiletto heels. Speaking of which, when a rowdy heckler calls Lee a “babe,” she high-heels the ringsider to death, before snarling, “If one more person calls me ‘babe’!” We can only surmise she’d prefer a more accurate nickname–say, “boob”?
As you may have heard, Barb Wire lifts its entire plot from Casablanca. In the Humphrey Bogart role, Lee runs a bar friendly to both villains and freedom fighters in America’s last “free city,” circa 2017. Since she’s a neutral mercenary-for-hire, Lee plays no favorites, and to prove it moonlights as a hooker/hit woman, explaining, “You gotta use everything you’ve got.” Cinched into rib-crushing leather bustiers, Lee is definitely doing just that. But, dependent as the Baywatch vet is on careful lighting, she is frequently sabotaged by the cameraman–with hilarious results.There are moments when she appears to be a Karen Black lookalike trying to pass herself off as Jessica Rabbit.
When corrupt police chief Xander Berkeley turns up to collect blackmail money, cop a feel and down a cognac, Lee demands payment for the booze (the feels are free). “Add it to my tab,” he sneers, finishing with the irresistible, inexplicable, presumably future-speak exclamation, “Boom, boom, boom!” Lee puts up with some things, not with others. When a rude drunk snarls, “Blow me!,” for example, she calls on her attack dog, Camille, and the faithful pooch bites the boor in his crotch and drags him out of the bar. Boom, boom, boom! And when the Ingrid Bergman character shows up in the guise of one Temuera Morrison, Lee doesn’t just mutter, “Of all the gin joints…,” she decks him and screeches, “Get out!” Boom, boom, boom!
The clever dialogue doesn’t stop here. Evil Colonel Steve Railsback roars at cop Berkeley, “I will personally rip yer heart outta yer ass and stuff it back down yer throat!” Boom, boom, boom! Casablanca fans will have dissolved so completely into helpless tears of laughter by the time Barb’s kid brother (Jack Noseworthy) appears, they’ll surely agree with his observation, “This must be a post-traumatic stress flashback.” Endearingly, Lee maintains her haughty act of narcissistic self-assurance throughout this chaotic trash. To keep us awake, she does things like stroke her naked flesh in a transparent bubble bath. It all ends, as you’d hoped it would, with police chief Berkeley and out-of-the-closet Resistance fighter Lee alone on a rain-drenched airfield. When Berkeley confesses, “I do believe I’m falling in love,” the endlessly self-enchanted one snaps, “Get in line!” Barb Wire only begins to tap the Bad Movie Pneumatic Goddess potential of Lee. This girl is a find. She is Pia Zadora come back. But where is the cinematic Svengali who can package her genius? Alas, Lee is Mamie Van Doren without Albert Zugsmith, Jayne Mansfield without Tommy Noonan, Joe Dallesandro without Paul Morrissey. Paging Zalman King!