Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper was a landmark Melbourne film in the year of its release, 1992. Who can forget its in-your-face portrayal of an ugly behavioural extremism provoked by the ever-changing multi-cultural face of the city, especially the expanding Asian contingent in the western suburbs?
It’s here that a gang of dole-bludging neo-Nazi skinheads have claimed the working-class suburb of Footscray as their own, fearlessly protecting its turf against interlopers. They have no qualms about brutally doling out punishment to any “gooks” who happen to stray into their realm. Hondo (Russell Crowe) is their charismatic leader but his charges are a mostly witless bunch of followers; loyal to the cause but with the combined mental ages of your average teenager. Only Davey (Daniel Pollack), Hondo’s reserved best mate, differentiates himself from the rest, his haunted eyes reflecting a quiet intelligence beyond his subservience to Hondo. When Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie), a disturbed young woman unwittingly walks into Hondo’s local hangout, The Railway Hotel, he’s instantly attracted. Before long he has even caused a public nuisance by shattering a store window just to steal a coat she randomly takes a fancy to.
Though Romper Stomper provoked a storm of outrage at the time, it never sets out to glamourise the skinhead gangs, unless one considers random racist theorizing and public displays of idiocy essential components of a desirable lifestyle. Raw depiction of their toxic, adrenalised rage, that can only lead to self-destruction ultimately, becomes crucial in informing Wright’s anarchic debut feature. In the film’s most memorable highly-charged set-piece, outrage at the slipping away of White Australian values is amplified to fever pitch as a confrontation at the Railway – which a group of Vietnamese are negotiating to buy – spills over into a massive street brawl.
The skinheads are the aggressors initially but an urgent call for backup sees carloads of Vietnamese youths from the nearby streets converging upon the site. A bloody, brilliantly staged ten minute sequence spills out into the streets and then the skinheads’ hideaway where they backtrack in systematic retreat, finally outnumbered. Filmed in-close by cinematographer Ron Hagen with an immediacy that will leave you struggling to catch your breath with the intensity of the hand-to-hand combat, it does beg one question as the skinheads’ hideaway is finally torched: where the hell are the police during all this? They do finally arrive on the scene but it’s well after the majority of the participants have dispersed.
Hondo wants revenge more than anything but his posse is suddenly exposed as a fragmented shell of underprepared young men who, rather than having their instincts sharpened by confrontation, have become dulled by both its associable dangers and the unexpected ferocity of the surging Vietnamese youths. With unwanted clarity, Hondo begins to sees himself as a lone force who will inevitably have the bear the full brunt of responsibility, the others solely dependant on him for direction and survival. His mood worsens as their dwindling core group holes up in an abandoned warehouse; he even turns on Gabe, especially after a raid on her father’s opulent home goes awry, the spoils that were within easy grasp stupidly squandered as they’re sent scurrying into the night, tails between their legs like frightened animals.
The towering presence of Crowe and his impact on the response the film generated can’t be understated; he’s a frightening figurehead for these disaffected, misguided youths, intimidation stamped in every glare and tirade against the tainted bloodlines invading a homeland he sees slipping beyond the domain of whites. McKenzie, in her stunning feature debut, is able to exactingly evoke the duality of Gabe’s inner turmoil with its conflicting forces of strength and vulnerability skillfully meshed to form an empathetic, fascinating composite. Pollack’s post-production suicide still leaves a bittersweet stain on memories of the film now, his dignified performance another real key to its success. Ultimately, Davey proves to be a crucial counterweight to triangulate against the dynamic, extreme personalities of Hondo and Gabe, and it’s he who shows greatest courage when it matters most as the unstable moral low ground of the trio threatens to shift and leave them grasping for purchase.
The years have hardly dulled the impact of this remarkable and increasingly relevant film. Though it can be viewed as an unsettlingly brutal and honest snapshot of Melbourne’s west, the broader implications contained within are hard to shake off. Indeed, Romper Stomper remains a persuasive reminder of the capacity for ugly, primal instincts to assert themselves amidst the squalor and congestion of urban life; to create a platform for tiny spot fires that, spreading into a blackened pool of racial hatred and misunderstanding, have a genuine capacity to begin and sustain a war of attrition that, as history tells us, has no end.