There is one unusual, particularly vivid image from my childhood that stands out to this day. It’s neither good nor bad, just there, always present by my side. It’s the sight of Pamela Anderson, emblazoned on a promotional coffee mug for her 1996 film Barb Wire, sitting atop the checkout counter at a local video rental store.
The sight is burned into my brain as plainly as the ink from the pens that the mug housed, which stained its white rim. That sensual ceramic might have been my very first introduction to sex. Despite being very gay, I found its wanton leather-and-boob combo perforated my burgeoning queerness forever. When Barb Wire was around, the world fell away.
No doubt that “sex” came before “narrative cohesion” on the list of importance when developing Barb Wire. The film, adapted from the Dark Horse comic book series, is set in a not-so-distant, apocalyptic future where the United States democracy has been overthrown, leaving every city under martial law. Well, except for the one remaining free city of Steel Harbor—home of the gun-toting, skintight-leather-wearing titular hero, Ms. Wire (if you’re nasty).
With Anderson—the actress, activist, and philanthropist—permeating the news cycle in a way she hasn’t in years thanks to her new Netflix documentary, Pamela, a Love Story, and her unconventional memoir, Love, Pamela, it’s time to revisit and reevaluate Barb Wire for the campsterpiece that it really is.
Barb Wire was developed at the tumultuous peak of Anderson’s stratospheric fame. After captivating the public for a handful of seasons on Baywatch, Anderson became even more of a tabloid fixture when she married Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee in February 1995, after the two had known each other for only four days.
It was just three months after their marriage that Barb Wire was announced at the Cannes Film Festival, which was closely followed by the publishing and litigation surrounding Anderson and Lee’s stolen sex tape. By the time Barb Wire was released in May of 1996, Anderson was no longer just a household name, she was inescapable. Had it been a success, Barb Wire would’ve catapulted Anderson from tabloid darling to legitimate A-List actress.
Instead of helping the film, Anderson’s mega-fame hemorrhaged it. Barb Wire took a nosedive the minute it hit theaters, returning just a paltry $1 million opening weekend—a fraction of its $9 million budget. By the time it was wheeled out of cinemas on a stretcher, a critical panning and negative audience buzz had it returning under $4 million for its total worldwide gross. In short: it was a catastrophic flop.
But like a fair amount of critically reviled stinkers, Barb Wire’s shocking schlock holds up far better than it has any right to nearly three decades later. It’s packed full of whiplash-inducing fight scenes and fantastic set pieces, but its bottom-line bombshell is what makes the film so damn delectable. Even with all its technical achievements, Barb Wire wouldn’t even be worth remembering if it weren’t for Anderson.
As if its ludicrous premise wasn’t enough, Barb Wire opens with a Star Wars-esque vertical text scroll that should send you running to Netflix while the movie is still streaming there until the end of the month. The narration of the film’s exposition ends by telling us that Steel Harbor’s lawless island is the perfect place for “a new kind of mercenary.”
Cut to what is perhaps one of the most gratuitous opening credits sequences ever put to celluloid: Anderson (credited here as Pamela Anderson Lee) gyrating and whipping her hair while being hosed down with water. The camera focuses on Anderson for a good couple of minutes as her shoddy blonde extensions and leather corset get soaked. Eventually, her boobs just fall right out, nearly taking an eye or two with them.
When the camera pans out, we see that this isn’t just Anderson dancing twirling around for the audience’s titillation, but Barb Wire doing a strip tease for a room full of piggish men at a Steel Harbor club. When a vile, drunken patron shouts at her to take all of her clothes off, harassing her with repeated pleas of, “Come on, babe,” Barb removes a stiletto and sends it flying toward him, the heel sticking him right between the eyes. She saunters backstage, lamenting, “If one more person calls me ‘babe…’”
This bait and switch is Barb’s go-to. Like Catwoman and Poison Ivy before her, Barb is an anti-hero who uses men’s fleeting brain cells as a way to advance herself in a broken world. It turns out, she’s only in this rundown joint to find and save a girl who has been trafficked by the club’s owner. Barb clomps her way through the club’s seedy rooms, rescues the girl, and returns her to her parents. But not before collecting a hefty bounty.
The film’s opening sequence is so brazenly confident that it’s harder to laugh at the film than it is to admire its audacity. But the camp factor really sets in when Barb pulls over in her muscle car to gaze out into the orange light of an apocalyptic day. “It was the middle of the second American Civil War, the world had gone to hell,” Anderson’s narration tells us. “It was 2017, the worst year of my life.” You can practically hear the collective hooting and hollering from audiences at a well-deserved repertory screening.
Barb Wire ascends higher into untold celestial chaos every moment thereafter. Barb owns and operates a bar called The Hammerhead, where members of the resistance and off-duty militants can both belly up to the counter, as long as they’re willing to pay. Barb herself remains neutral; she goes where the money takes her. But when Axel (Temuera Morrison)—an old lover from Barb’s days as a freedom fighter—shows up looking to smuggle a fugitive safely to Canada, Barb’s life is thrown upside down all over again.
If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Barb Wire essentially rips off the plot of Casablanca. (Except Barb Wire is better.)
And the film isn’t all cleavage and clandestine meetings, either. In Anderson’s memoir, she spoke of the grueling experience on set. “The schedule was taxing. It was my first introduction to such long, long hours, involving exciting and dangerous stunts,” she wrote. “Learning to ride a motorcycle. Kickboxing in a tiny, restrictive corset. Rolling around while shooting guns like Desert Eagles and assembling at hyper speed MP5K fully automatics.” Call me when Humphrey Bogart can squeeze into a rib-breaking leather corset and do most of his own stunts, and then we’ll talk.
Yet, critics and audiences failed to see much merit in the film—or Anderson’s performance—at all. Then-Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Glieberman reduced Anderson’s turn in the film to “cheesecake served up straight from the lab,” saying, “[Anderson] is a creature of synthetic hair, synthetic attitude, and synthetic God knows what else.”
But the fact of the matter is, watching Barb Wire today presents a much different picture. Anderson exudes an unconcerned confidence, tuning-in to Barb’s cynical worldview by putting her own jaded fury with stardom in front of the lens. Anderson’s attitude operates at a low simmer until someone turns up the gas and Barb comes alive. It’s thrilling to watch, even at its most obtuse moments (of which there are many—thank god).
Behind the scenes, Anderson was trying her best to balance her whirlwind marriage to Lee with double duty on Baywatch and Barb Wire. Anderson admitted in her memoir to swallowing a bottle of Advil and washing it down with vodka, only to vomit it all up because she was sickened by the taste of hard liquor. Just weeks later, Anderson suffered a miscarriage of her first pregnancy with Lee, followed shortly after by an ovarian cyst bursting while performing one of Barb Wire’s many stunts. In retrospect, it’s a marvel that the film was even made, and even more impressive that Anderson’s performance is such a compulsively watchable knockout.
Barb Wire really does have a little bit of everything. Blow-darts disguised as cigarettes; exploding shaving cream; a pair of coveted contact lenses worth dying for; and an unforgettable finale fight that takes place 300 feet in the air, atop a moving crane. But none of that would be worth much if it weren’t for Pamela Anderson.
She brought an innate focus to Barb Wire, even while her personal life was in unimaginable disarray. Without her grounding this Mad Max-ian romp, Barb Wire would’ve surely faded into the annals of forgotten cinematic history. Instead, it’s a legitimate cult classic; “Camp” with a capital “C.” Like most everything Anderson does, it’s strikingly ahead of its time.
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