Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Staying Positive: BARB WIRE

 by Adam Thas

Are you a fan of '80s and '90s low-budget action movies? How about those '90s movies they showed on Cinemax after 11pm? Well then I’ve got a movie for you!

It’s been a while since I’ve written a “Staying Positive,” so allow me a brief refresher. I watch a movie that has a reputation for not being very good, critically or through my own experience with the movie, and I try to find the things to like about it. In honor of 1996 week, I decided to re-watch the 1996 action romp Barb Wire.

What makes Barb Wire interesting initially is that it is a comic book movie way before comic book movies were a thing. Back in the fervor that was the early '90s comic book madness, Dark Horse Comics conceived an idea to start a separate universe called Comics’ Greatest World made up of dozens of new titles and one shots to capitalize on the market. While it was relatively successful, by the time those titles came out in 1993 and 1994, the luster and madness of comic collecting had started to die off. Unfortunately, Barb Wire (the comic) only lasted 9 issues and was just another comic series buried in the piles of comics printed in the early '90s. Naturally, the type of thing you make a movie about.
Barb Wire (the movie) famously stars Pamela Anderson as the leather-clad, gun-toting, part-time bounty hunter and entrepreneur of Steel City we found in the comics, with the largest difference being the movie takes place in the dystopian future of 2017 United States rather than the alternate reality the comic exists in. In the movie universe, Steel City is the last free city in the United States and Barb Wire finds herself caught up between the Resistance and the evil Congressional Directorate, where she is forced to choose sides after a former lover comes into her life. To make it simple, just think Casablanca with more leather. Adding to the love story is a plot involving contact lenses, Canada, and plastic surgery that is way more complicated than it needs to be. Needless to say, if in 1996 you were going to see this movie because of the plot, you were disappointed. That however, is where the “Staying Positive” comes in. This movie didn’t get made because of the plot; it got made because Pamela Anderson was in it and it had explosions and the movie delivers on that promise. Barb Wire opens with an Anderson striptease in slow motion as she gets blasted with a fire hose in slow motion, showing just enough nipple to be topless while avoiding an NC-17 rating.

Along with a topless Anderson, Barb Wire delivers on action (not saying it’s all good action, but there is a lot of action), with plenty of explosions, machine guns, and gadgets galore. About three quarters of the way through the movie, Barb Wire shoots rockets out of the front of her motorcycle and I immediately thought of Delta Force, a movie that in some circles is beloved. There has been criticism of Anderson for her (lack of) acting, and while she is not good, she’s as good or better than I’ve seen Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris be in plenty of movies. It’s clear that Barb Wire is doing a lot of things that I have liked in other movies, so why is Barb Wire considered a pariah in movies from not only 1996, but the '90s in general?
While it has a lot of problems, Barb Wire suffers from something much bigger than anything on the screen, and that is timing. The story is that Pamela Anderson agreed to do Barb Wire because she wanted to follow in the footsteps of one of her idols, Jane Fonda. She saw Barb Wire as her Barbarella, tailor made as her breakout role. The trouble was that while Jane Fonda was famous prior to Barbarella, she did not have anywhere close to the fame level Anderson had when Barb Wire was released. In 1996, Anderson had already been introduced to the world through her breakout roll in Baywatch. She was regularly gracing the pages of Playboy, had married a rock star, and not even a month after the release of Barb Wire, Penthouse Magazine would print the first still images from her now infamous sex tape. Because of Anderson’s fame, Barb Wire gets a $9 million budget and a huge theatrical release. Had this movie come out without a world famous Anderson, a smaller budget, and released on video rather than in theaters, it would have been forgotten. Instead it became the punching bag and poster-child for bad '90s movies. Barb Wire is full of car chases, guitar slides, and whammy bars throughout the soundtrack, scantily clad women, and action every 10 minutes. It everything that we loved about low budget 1980s action movies -- except Barb Wire is not a low budget 1980s action movie, it’s a 1996 big budget action movie. That is the final tragedy of its timing. Had Pamela Anderson not been so famous, and had this movie been released in 1986 instead of 1996, I would venture to say not only would it have been accepted better, but in some circles it would have been beloved.

Unfortunately for Anderson, this was not the breakout role she had hoped it would be, and Barb Wire would not make her nearly as famous or make nearly as much money as a stolen video tape would later that year. When looking at Barb Wire through a more positive lens, it’s doing things that we’ve loved in other movies. There are some genuinely fun action sequences, and if boobs are your thing it’s got plenty of those. While it’s not a good movie, it certainly doesn’t deserve the venom it receives.


  1. I have warm memories of seeing this at 13 years old, and they have nothing to do with the quality of filmmaking. Haven't seen it since, but probably better to hold on to the memories than revisit the movie and shatter them.

  2. I am fairly certain "13 years old" boys were a key demographic for this one. Hold onto those memories!