Romper Stomper was the film that first suggested Russell Crowe for our consideration as a major modern movie star; a tough, uncompromising, pretty relentless study of a neo-Nazi skinhead gang living in a flophouse in the Footscray suburb of Melbourne. Writer-director Geoffrey Wright hews to a template set down by the teen gang exploitationers of the 1950s and 60s, with principal bullies Hando (Crowe) and Davey (Daniel Pollock) set against one another upon the arrival of a girl in their ranks (Jacqueline McKenzie, as an epileptic bohemian dropout Hando has designs on turning into his Eva Braun). More so than any other of the films caught up in the early-Nineties violence-in-the-movies controversy, it remains a very tough watch. Like the later Crash, which described its characters through a pile-up of sex scenes, this comes to define its leads by charging hell for leather through one brutal setpiece after another: pitched battles against the local Vietnamese community, a party where the dancing is only just less thuggish than the sex going on in the bedrooms, a number of scenes (the opening assault on a couple in an underpass, a later home invasion) which would appear to be at least partly inspired by A Clockwork Orange.
One of the film's strengths/flaws is that it offers no immediate point of identification. Hando and Davey are broadly as detestable as each other (the real difference between them is only that one leads, the other follows; Wright can't or won't make it explicit these boys are ideal partners, but it's there nonetheless) and McKenzie's character is there to show how seductive an ideology rage and hate can be for the weak. It's an unusual stance, but one that means there's no-one to look to or root for in the inter-Nazi fight scenes, which manage to be properly scrappy in the manner of the best Aussie street brawls and convincingly hideous as spectacle. (A point Wright underlines in having the final three-way stand-off observed by a bus full of Japanese tourists.) It's exceptionally well made and acted - assembled with real conviction, right down to the godawful right-wing pub rock sourced for the skinheads' listening pleasure - and would probably be even more problematic if it wasn't. Crowe, pulsing with hatred, gets the big ideological rants that tend to make stars of unknown actors unafraid to play scuzzballs, but also conjures up a number of more soulful thousand-yard stares. It was a logical step for him to travel from this to Gladiator in less than a decade, though given the actor's methodology of immersing himself totally in his characters, you almost certainly wouldn't have wanted to be around him at the time of shooting.
Romper Stomper is available to stream via Amazon Prime, and on DVD through Contender.