Reviewed by Nick Fredman
Romper Stomper is a powerful, shocking, and flawed film. The story of the violent downfall of a group of Melbourne fascist skinheads, manages to be an apparently authentic portrayal of a subculture, while saying nothing about the causes and real nature of fascism.
Led by the brooding Fuhrer-figure Hando (an AFI award-winning performance by Russell Crowe), and his best mate Davey (Daniel Pollock), the skins live together in a warehouse squat, the site of raucous parties and the launching pad of viscous attacks on young Vietnamese. Hando picks up mixed-up rich kid Gabe (Jacqui McKenzie) at the skins' local, and she gets drawn into their culture with macabre fascination.
The gang makes one attack too many, however, and in a brilliantly filmed running battle Vietnamese gangs defeat the skins and burn their squat. From then, a botched burglary, infighting, betrayal by Gabe and a police raid doom the skins to a violent end.
The explicit violence, the overload of fascist imagery, a soundtrack of disturbing noise and the moronic lyrics of skin thrash, and the ugly end of the gang do not paint an attractive picture of this subculture. But there is no examination of the causes of fascism, beyond the tritely personal — Gabe's father abused her and Davey's was never at home, and so fascism is not caused by the social contradictions of capitalism in decay, but by individual dysfunctional families.
No solutions are suggested either besides the personal, in the love and redemption Davey finds in Gabe, and his rejection and oh-so-symbolic slaying of Hando.
Writer-director Geoffrey Wright has posed Romper Stomper as ground-breaking, but its narrative follows the cliched, psychologically motivated Hollywood portrayal of "deviant" subculture behaviour, repeated with variations from the The Wild One to Dogs in Space. There's even the silly woman who falls for the charismatic leader. The function of this type of film to reassure the majority that social problems are the result of a few troubled individuals, while appealing to alienated youth who are attracted to apparent rebelliousness.
Worse, images of Asians are stereotyped (Vietnamese buying up the skins local pub and Japanese tourists witnessing the final scene) for seemingly "ironic" purposes, and the violence of the Vietnamese youth is shown as just as fanatical, motivated by vengeance, and meaningless as the fascists'.
Watching Romper Stomper is an intense, thought-provoking experience. But unfortunately the potential for a well-made and clearly anti-racist film has not been realised. n