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RAVAGING BEAUTY

The over-the-top comic strip Tank Girl became an instant cult sensation when it hit the streets of London in 1988, and it wasn't long until kids on this side of the Atlantic started eating it up, too.

No surprise. The futuristic action heroine created by self-proclaimed layabouts Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin is part male-fantasy babe, part take-no-guff feminist: a bawdy, head-banging, beer-swigging bundle of bad attitude who drives around in a military tank festooned with lethal gizmos. Sitting astride the cannon barrel, she coos in mock wonder: "It's so looongg!" Still have trouble seeing her? Imagine Madonna born again as Mad Max and painted up in broad strokes.

Now Tank Girl has gone Hollywood, with mixed results. She's still sassy and sneery, but whenever you put actual flesh and blood (in this case, Lori Petty's) on a cartoon icon, you risk losing some of the magic. Director Rachel Talalay (a Yale mathematics grad in her former life) has anticipated the problem by sprinkling frantic, eye-popping animation segments through the movie to remind us of The Girl's origins. But we're still faced with something that actually breathes, and that can be good or bad.

Contrasted with her go as a ballplayer in A League of Their Own, Petty is a revelation. She apparently showed up to audition for the part with a straight razor clenched in her fist, then announced: "I am Tank Girl!" Okay, so she is--crude, tattooed and lewd. Like a leaping, punching, wisecracking whirlwind, she sails through Tedi Sarafian's defiantly incoherent script with her spiky 'do sticking out in every direction and her monosyllabic jolts of reaction flying around the set like knives. "Cool!" this postmodern intones. "Shit!" she barks. "Shut up!" this postliterate heroine snorts. If you don't think the world has changed, take note that the nasty villain of the piece, played by Malcolm McDowell, is detested most because he recites poetry.

Plot? Well, okay. It's the year 2033, and in Tank Girl's deft phrase, "the world is screwed now." That's because a meteor hit Earth a while back, there's been no rain in eleven years, and postapocalyptic powermongers like McDowell's Kesslee selfishly control the world desert, hoarding every drop of water they can get their hands on. When Kesslee runs short, he jams a vicious-looking, multispiked pump into the back of a nearby lieutenant, then watches with glee as the poor devil's blood is magically transformed into precious H20. Cool!

There's also a band of half-human, half-kangaroo mutants (led by rapper Ice-T) called Rippers, a sidekick named Jet Girl (Naomi Watts) and, for some reason, a full-blown musical-production number set in a futuristic brothel called Liquid Silver, where Tank Girl, with help from the duo of Joan Jett and Paul Westerberg and a leg line of platinum-blond hookers wearing almost nothing, deconstruct the Cole Porter classic "Let's Do It" in no uncertain terms. Talalay tosses in a blunt parody of Busby Berkeley dance patterns just for decoration.

But while providing a huge dose of in-your-face catharsis for the mauve-hair-and-nose-ring set, this outrageous charade also sets plenty of I-told-you-so cultural alarms to clanging in those elders who think all Western civilization is going down the drain fast. In the end, everybody gets his way, hip and lame alike.

As you might expect, the soundtrack is crucial, or at least marketable. The credits list Courtney Love-Cobain (yeah, her) as "executive music coordinator," which gave her the right to hire, among others, Bjork, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Rachel Sweet, Bush, Devo, Sky Cries Mary and, to be sure, Love-Cobain's own group, Hole.

Some people have all the fun.

 
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