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Romper Stomper

Review Written by: Joe Earp
Film: A+
Video/Audio/Extras: A-/A-/A+

Directed by: Geoffrey Wright
Written by: Geoffrey Wright
Produced by: Ian Pringle and Daniel Scharf
Starring: Russell Crowe, Daniel Pollock, Jacqueline McKenzie, Alex Scott
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Buy it!

What images come instantly to mind when one mentions the phrase 'Australian film'? For some these two simple words may incite memories of Aboriginal children searching for a way home amidst a harsh violent desert in Rabbit Proof Fence. Some on the other hand may remember a group of distraught British schoolgirls and the mysterious disappearance of Picnic at Hanging Rock. But how many people will remember Russell Crowe, his head shaved and his body tattooed, strangling a Vietnamese shop owner?

Australian films are often overlooked by international audiences. To many, an Australian film is a light, fluffy piece of entertainment. Let us not forget, we as Aussies are responsible for Baz Luhrmann with his cushy romances, or Phillip Noyce with his undemanding action thrillers. But this condescending view of Australian film is very unfair. Although many Ozzie movies feature broad comedy and silly central protagonists, every once in a while we produce a gem.

A gem like Romper Stomper.

Romper Stomper was once an infamous cult film in Australia. Renowned for its visceral violence and uncompromisingly in-your-face narrative, the film was the uncredited basis for Tony Kaye's far more famous American History X. Both films deal with a group of Nazi skinheads and the way they interact with those around them, as well as their broader community. In fact the two movies are so similar that they both end with almost identical shots of a deserted beach. But the fact of the matter is simple: Romper Stomper is far more intelligent or shocking than American History X could ever hope to be.

That said it was only half an hour into watching the film that I actually began to respect Romper Stomper. The story centres around Hando, a young Australian male who wages a personal war against a group of Vietnamese immigrants. Along the way he falls in love with a young drug addict, beats up just about everyone in sight and tries to disguise his own faults and insecurities. The film's rapid pacing and excessive violence fooled me at first. In the beginning, I found myself repulsed by the film and what I thought to be poor characterization. Hando, the central protagonist, seemed to be nothing more than a cardboard cutout, a springboard for the ideas Geoffrey Wright (the film's director) wanted to launch at the audience. However after watching the film for another good twenty minutes I realized exactly what Wright was getting at. Hando seems to be poorly characterized at first because he has no real way of expressing himself. When we first encounter the violent skinhead he is beating up a group of Vietnamese children for what seems like no reason at all. The fact of the matter is violence is the only way Hando can ever express himself. He cannot communicate on any meaningful level with those around him and so instead turns to physical conflict.

This idea of alienation and violence is just one of the many themes Wright explores in this magnificent film. The movie also challenges the excuses we use to justify our own actions. Romper Stomper begins with an act of violence and ends with an act of violence. But while the first is commited under the excuse of race, by the end we realise how pointless all this fighting actually is. Hando never explains why he hates 'the Gooks'. Instead all of the violence and all of the racism, is just a way to release tension building up inside the tormented young skinhead.

Characters motivations in the film are revealed slowly, complicating what seems like a simple story. Hando's love interest for example, Gabe, seems to join the skinheads for no reason at all. But after a while Wright reveals that she too is using race as an excuse, that she too wants to vent her own anger under the pretence of the White Australia policy. The film's real strength lies in the way it makes the audience feel so uncomfortable. It doesn't take us long to realise that the skinheads are just a group of angry young men, viciously lashing out against whatever they can. Nevertheless we do still feel sympathy for Gabe and Danny, one of Hando's right hand men. We are drawn by two conflicting sympathies as we desperately pray that the skinheads can abandon their racist ways before it is too late.

The film features some truly amazing set-pieces. Scenes in which skinheads turn on each other when surrounded by Vietnamese protestors are both shocking and thought-provoking. Wright's wonderful knack for capturing dialogue and characters make the film consistently watchable. Although all of this is far from entertaining, it grips like a vice.

Although much has been said about Russell Crowe's dynamic performance, the whole cast is exceptional. Wright's direction is simply top-notch, mixing strange slow motion shots with queasy, insane camera angles. Simple tunnels and corridors are exploited by the constantly moving camera, creating a world of harsh edges and strange perspective. Wright also keeps the camera low, trapping the audience at an uncomfortable angle. We are forced to look up at the figures in the film as they loom over us, terrifying in their stature and by their nature.

The DVD of Romper Stomper features some wonderful special features including an interview with the delightfully verbose Wright. Although the director is infamous for having thrown a glass of wine at a reviewer who didn't like the film, he is surprisingly charming in the interview, providing clever insights into the world of violence and racism. Although Russell Crowe isn't quite as eloquent, he too provides some interesting stories of behind the camera life. A theatrical trailer is also included in the package as well as a photo gallery and cast and crew filmographies.

All in all Romper Stomper is a lost gem, a quiet classic that has been forgotten even by some Australians. So next time you consider putting Tony Kaye's blatant rip-off into the DVD player, give Geoffrey Wright's powerful, complex and shocking little film a go instead.

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