Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Romper Stomper: Special Edition (1992)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox

Those who saw Russell Crowe's mesmerizing star turn in Gladiator will be blown away by his breakthrough performance in Romper Stomper. Crowe plays the confused yet charismatic leader of a rowdy gang of skinheads, showcasing his undeniable power as an actor.

The controversial film drew rave reviews for its visceral look at how the seeds of racial hatred, fueled by fear and paranoia, can explode into raw violence. Winner of three Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Actor for Crowe, Romper Stomper is "exhilarating and utterly brilliant" (Preview Magazine).

Director: Geoffrey Wright
Cast: Russell Crowe, Daniel Pollock, Jacqueline McKenzie, Alex Scott, Leigh Russell, Daniel Wyllie, James McKenna
DVD: 2-Disc set; widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD & DTS 5.1, English Dolby Surround; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 24 chapters; Not Rated; 93 min.; $26.98; street date 11/21/00.
Supplements: Disc One: Audio Commentary by Director Geoffrey Wright; Stereo Music Track.
Disc Two: Documentary: "Skinheads - Reality and Fiction"; "Making The Movie"; Interviews with Russell Crowe and Geoffrey Wright; Still Gallery, Cast Biographies & More.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - John Clifford White

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B+/B+

As inevitable as the tides, whenever an actor experiences breakthrough success, his or her older work will rush to the marketplace. Usually this means we get junk like Adam Sandler in Going Overboard or Kevin Costner in Sizzle Beach, USA or even Madonna in A Certain Sacrifice, but every once in a while something decent emerges from the hopper.

Into that category falls Romper Stomper, an early effort from Gladiator superstar Russell Crowe. Unlike the cheesy efforts I associated with the other actors, 1992’s RS actually received quite a lot of praise and can stand as quality effort in its own right. While it seems obvious that it received this new DVD push due to Crowe’s success, this doesn’t count as one of those “exploitational” releases to which I previously referred.

RS focuses on a group of skinheads in Australia. Skinheads are essentially neo-Nazis who have become best known in Europe, but RS wanted to demonstrate that their influence can be found elsewhere. The movie shows a gang led by Hando (Crowe), a handsome and charismatic - though nasty and hateful - white supremacist obsessed with ridding his country of all foreign influences.

This desire is mainly exercised against Australia’s Asian community, here depicted largely through Vietnamese characters. Hando and the others hate these folks for no reason other than skin color and national origin, and the film depicts the simplicity and stupidity of the skinheads’ ways clearly.

In fact, that’s probably the best thing about RS. Despite some alarmist cries to the contrary, it never glorifies or even remotely condones the violent and hateful ways of the neo-fascists. If anything, it shows just how moronic and simple-minded these folks are, though the film doesn’t really attempt to investigate the origins of their thoughts with any depth; one gets the impression that their negativity is based upon feelings of worthlessness - pretty accurate feelings, if you ask me, since most of the ‘heads seem like total buffoons - but there’s little exploration of these thoughts.

That’s why I found Romper Stomper to remain only mildly interesting at best. The movie portrays the actions of the skinheads but does little to examine them with any depth. It also suffers from what feels like a gratuitous “love triangle” plot. Early in the film, the crew meet up with Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie), an abused young woman who quickly hooks up with Hando. Sad-sack skinhead Davey (Daniel Pollock) clearly develops feelings for Gabe as well, but they don’t fully emerge until Hando starts to mistreat her.

In the end, too much of RS was devoted to this element of the story. It seemed irrelevant other than as a method to get a woman more involved in the tale. Skinhead gangs are almost exclusively “boys clubs”, so Gabe’s inclusion felt like a forced attempt to make the movie more appealing to the ladies in the audience.

Ironically, Gabe is probably the best-developed character in the film, not that she receives a lot of exposition, however. At least we see the superficial roots of her angst, which occurs due to years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Don’t expect much depth to her role, though, as the movie just uses the short-hand negativity (appropriately) associated with incest to sum up her part.

RS has received much praise for its acting, and I won’t fault the performances. Crowe neatly fits the mold of Hando and he provides strong and compelling work that seemed logically scary and intimidating. Pollock mastered the pathetically insulated quality of Davey, and McKenzie nicely delivers the combination of rage and sensuality one would expect of a woman in her position.

Ultimately, however, I felt somewhat disappointed by Romper Stomper just because it lacked enough style or perspective to be truly intriguing. Many have compared the movie to A Clockwork Orange, and I felt that many similarities did exist. However, the latter was much better executed and thought-provoking; it’s one of those films you could discuss for hours after you watch it. RS reminds you of something most of you already recognize: racist fascists are a bad thing. There’s nothing more substantial at work here, so RS remains a compellingly visceral experience at times that may open some eyes to the existence of skinheads but it does little more than that.

The DVD:

Romper Stomper appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the film showed its low-budget origins, as a whole it presented a pretty solid picture.

Sharpness usually looked very good. A few instances of mildly soft or fuzzy images appeared - mainly during some interior scenes - but the majority of the movie seemed crisp and well-defined. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented few concerns, and I witnessed only modest artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV.

Colors looked somewhat erratic but often appeared nicely rich and bold. At times the hues came across as a little drab and flat, but they usually seemed rather bright and well-saturated; reds were especially notable in that regard, and the entire package lacked any concerns related to bleeding or noise. Black levels appeared deep and dark, and though some interior shots seemed somewhat murky, shadow detail usually was clear and accurate, without many signs of excessive thickness.

Print flaws presented the film’s main concerns. Though never terribly heavy, I saw consistent examples of speckles and grit plus a few nicks. The biggest problems resulted from grain. This defect wasn’t excessive but grain did occur throughout much of the movie. Nonetheless, Romper Stomper offered nicely satisfying visual experience that seemed stronger than I’d expected.

Also better than one would think were the movie’s soundtracks. We find both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes here, which was a surprise since this was a cheaply-made 16mm movie. Both tracks seemed identical to me; I couldn’t discern any difference between the DTS and DD mixes. Both also sounded quite good; though the audio won’t give more recent big-budget affairs a scare, it seemed quite good nonetheless.

The soundfield provided a nicely rounded and engaging affair. The forward spectrum appeared fairly well-defined as it offered good localizing of audio. The sounds also blended together fairly well and created a decent impression. Where the mix worked best, however, was when it involved the surrounds and provided atmospheric audio. The track established a solid environment that combined music and effects to be appropriately creepy. The rears kicked in with substantial amounts of the score and also some effects, and they played a significant role in the mix. Ultimately it was an encompassing and engrossing track.

My only complaint about the soundfield was that it may actually have seemed too active at times. It occasionally felt like the sound designers went a little nuts and added too much sound to the mix. As a result, the track sometimes appeared a somewhat artificial and unnatural. These instances weren’t frequent, but they did slightly detract from the overall auditory experience.

Audio quality seemed dated but decent. Dialogue sounded somewhat stiff and flat but appeared generally natural. Speech displayed slight edginess at times but showed no problems related to intelligibility (other than those caused by the actors’ accents). Effects came across as a bit erratic. For the most part they sounded clean and accurate, but sometimes they could seem a little thin and without depth. The film’s score fared nicely as it presented crisp and dynamic audio. The music seemed well-defined and presented some surprisingly deep and taut bass. All in all, the soundtracks of Romper Stomper provided very satisfying audio.

Despite the film’s low profile, Fox have produced a rather elaborate special edition of DVD for Romper Stomper in this two-disc set. Most of the extras appear on the second platter, but we do find a running audio commentary from director Geoffrey Wright on DVD One. I found his remarks to be nicely frank as he offers a solid overview of the production. Wright focuses on the actors, and spends a lot of time talking about Crowe, but the film’s most famous participant isn’t the sole emphasis of the track. Wright also goes over the controversy that surrounded the film plus quite a few other elements in this fairly complete commentary.

On the second DVD we discover a slew of other extras. “Reviews” offers brief articles from “People” and “Rolling Stone” magazines and one from the “LA Times” as well. There’s the film’s theatrical trailer and a “Biographies” section. The latter provides decent listings for actors Crowe, Pollock, McKenzie, Alex Scott, Daniel Wyllie, James McKenna, and Tony Lee plus notes about writer/director Wright and producers Daniel Scharf and Ian Pringle.

“Interviews” includes a wealth of video material. “New Interviews With Geoffrey Wright” is split into three different subsections. “Making the Movie” lasts 18 minutes and features good general comments about Wright’s career and the history of production, while “Skinheads - Reality and Fiction” goes for 10 minutes and one second as Wright offers a solid discussion of the issues examined in the film. Lastly, the five-minute and 33-second “Response to Romper Stomper” concentrates on reactions to the film in Australia, though it also discusses the occurrences in other areas. I found all of these interviews to act as nice complements to the audio commentary, though a little material is repeated between them.

“1992 Australian Interviews” provides additional material that was recorded around the time of the film’s original theatrical release. All of these clips follow a somewhat odd structure. Text questions appear and then we hear from the interviewee. I suppose these were done in such a manner to make it possibly appear that some local TV goon did the interviews; radio stations have used similar kinds of “open ended” formats for years.

In this area, we get interviews with director Wright (29 minute and 48 seconds) plus actors Crowe (12 minutes and 34 seconds), McKenzie (12 minutes and 30 seconds), and Lee (10 minutes and 56 seconds). As a whole, these pieces provided a nice look at various aspects of the production. Wright focused mainly on the reaction to the film, which was also the biggest issue discussed in Lee’s conversation, though he examines the movie from the point of view of the Vietnamese community in Australia. Crowe covered his experiences while he made the film and also talked about his acting philosophy, while McKenzie took on similar topics. All in all, the hour plus of interviews provided some interesting material.

A couple of other features round out the DVD. The “Film Restoration Demo” demonstrates how the new disc improves upon old releases of RS. We see a scene from the original video and then watch the same snippet from the DVD restoration. Finally, the segment displays both versions side by side. We discover three different scenes examined this way. It felt a little self-congratulatory, but I still thought it was an interesting way to see the work that went into the mastering.

Lastly, “Facts/Photos” includes 21 screens of information. Each features a photo from the production with a little factoid blurb at the bottom of the screen. There’s nothing terribly fascinating here, but it’s a nice little addition nonetheless.

Although Romper Stomper offered a well-acted and moderately compelling experience, it ultimately left me a little cold. The film lacked much sense of depth or freshness and just reminded me of facts I already knew. The DVD provides surprisingly strong picture and sound plus a nice complement of extras. In the end, Romper Stomper is only a mediocre movie, but the solid production of this DVD makes it worth a look.

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