Crimes Against Film: Barb Wire (1996)

THE DEFENDANT: Barb Wire first hit stands as a Dark Horse comic in the early ’90s. A part-time bounty hunter, Barbara Kopetski (aka Barb Wire, played by Pamela Anderson), owns a bar called The Hammerhead in the lawless city of Steel Harbor, the “last free city” in the midst of the second American Civil War. She’s an ass-kicking former freedom fighter turned mercenary who wears a lot of leather.

THE PROSECUTION: Alright, so the movie opens with five straight minutes of a soaking wet Pam Anderson writhing on a stage, bosoms out and proud. Barb Wire is shamelessly soft-core porn amidst the gunfire and explosions. When Anderson isn’t outright naked, she’s in S&M bondage gear.

Yes, Anderson is a pretty atrocious actress. She’s never been popular for her sparkling eloquence or charming personality. The leaden, melodramatic script doesn’t help, either.

Yeah, the entire plot is shamelessly stolen from Casablanca. Barb used to be a freedom fighter, became disillusioned when her heart was broken, and now owns a bar that caters to all sides. There’s a corrupt police chief willing to take bribes to look the other way. The old love returns to beg for Barb’s help in smuggling their new, heroic spouse out of the country. The film ends with a goodbye at an airport. The baddies are, naturally, done up in uniforms stolen straight from the last Nazi fashion catalogue.

Barb Wire also shamelessly rips off the aesthetic of the Mad Max films: there’s a general post-apocalyptic wasteland vibe, junkyard gang sporting goggles and trash couture, and dangerous car chases in souped-up vehicles.

Finally, it was nominated for a slew of Razzies, including Worst Film and Worst Actress (Anderson sadly lost to Demi Moore for her sparkling work in Striptease).

THE DEFENSE: With all of that said, damn if this isn’t a hysterically enjoyable film. It’s not for everyone, obviously, but for those of us who love over-the-top ridiculous B-movies, this turkey is a delicious Butterball.

The Casablanca plot rip-off only makes it more amazing. Somebody decided that what the world really needed was a movie where Pam Anderson played Rick, Kiwi hunk Temuera Morrison played Ilsa, and Xander Berkley was Captain Renault. 

I can’t help but love a movie that’s unafraid to gender-swap that story AND make Pam “Playboy Bunny” Anderson the Bogey character.

Anderson may be a terrible actress, but she fits right in with the grungy BDSM aesthetics of the flick. With her heavy makeup, stiletto heels, and 17-inch cinched waist, she looks like she just stepped off the pages of the gritty comics of the ’90s. Visually, she’s perfect for the role. And in this movie, the look trumps pretty much anything else.

Then, there’s the supporting cast. Udo Kier plays Curly, Barb’s right-hand man at The Hammerhead. It’s always a good time when that German horror staple shows up; he’s delightful as he unnecessarily worries about Barb, loves the bar, and wears a terrible wig. 

Xander Berkley is clearly enjoying himself as the greedy Willis. Jack Noseworthy plays Barb’s brother and fellow rebel, Charlie, a snarky lush blinded by an enemy grenade. Steve Railsback chews the scenery flavorless as the primary jack-booted thug. Ron Howard’s less-favored little brother, Clint, shows up as the Ugarte fill-in.

The Hammerhead is a character in and of itself with its protective cages around the bartenders, neon-lit tables, house grunge band, and a smooth-voiced DJ delivering sweet nothings interspersed with promises of violence from his booth. The scenes at the bar are definitely the film’s strongest.

THE VERDICT: Barb Wire may be a cheaply produced and schlocky comic book adaptation, but its post-apocalyptic world is fun and the action mostly enjoyable. The character herself is interesting, regardless of Anderson’s performance. 

And, in the end, that’s what I really demand from my movies: entertainment. So what if this isn’t highbrow or slickly polished? As long as I’m having fun for an hour and a half, I’m getting what I paid for.

To put it another way: know when you get a craving for Taco Bell at midnight after you’ve had a couple drinks with friends and you’re all in that “everything is soooo funny” phase? So you pile into a car, the teetotaler takes you through the drive-thru, and you order ten too many tacos, a slew of burritos, and twelve bags of cinnamon twists? Then you go home, eat the entire lot, and wake up the next morning with your face stuck to the kitchen table, surrounded by wrappers and cans and snoring pals, the taste of hot sauce still in your mouth while your eyes feel like they’re on fire? 

That’s Barb Wire. It’s not healthy, it’s not all that good for you, and you may regret parts of it in the morning. But while you’re in the midst of it, you’re still laughing and having a good time. 

After all, there’s a difference between a bad movie (one that’s wholly boring and badly made) and a good bad movie (one that’s a hoot even if the production values are iffy). This one is definitely in the latter category.


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

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