Video Rewind tells the BTS stories from the video store era, one rental at a time. Press play and adjust your tracking for “Barb Wire” (1996)!
When Humphrey Bogart stood on a dark, foggy tarmac saying goodbye to Ingrid Bergman with the iconic line, “here’s looking at you, kid,” audiences in 1943 were watching in real-time what would become one of the greatest films in Hollywood history. To this day, Casablanca remains as influential as ever, and, as Hollywood is wont to do, both a sequel and a remake have been discussed numerous times since its release.
In the mid-1990s, a big-budget remake of the 1954 Humphrey Bogart-Audrey Hepburn classic Sabrina was released with Harrison Ford in the Bogart role. The film underperformed at the box office but it did receive positive reviews, which was enough for Hollywood to look at what other classics had the potential for a remake.
Another Bogart film was selected, and Casablanca was greenlit to hit the big screen again in a re-imagining of the story. Starring in the Bogart role this time? A blonde bombshell named Pamela Anderson.
Barbara Kopetski, aka Barb Wire, made her comic book debut in 1993 from Comics Greatest World, a Dark Horse Comics label. Created by Chris Warner, the character was a street-wise, street-tough, leather-wearing, motorcycle-riding bounty hunter living in the rundown town of Steel City (“don’t call me babe,” Barb would warn men who tried to sweet-talk her).
Dark Horse Comics published a Barb Wire comic book series in 1994 and 1995, totaling 9 issues. In 1994, Dark Horse had two of its titles adapted for the big screen, both of which were a great success, Timecop, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, and The Mask starring Jim Carrey.
Barb Wire would be the comic company’s next film adaptation, and the actress born to play the part was currently on the most-watched show in the world, Baywatch.
In 1989, 22-year-old Pamela Anderson went to a BC Lions football game in Vancouver wearing a Labatt Blue beer t-shirt. When she was captured on the stadium’s jumbotron, the gorgeous Anderson caused quite a stir, so much so that Labatt hired her as a spokesmodel (you can buy the ‘Blue Zone Girl’ poster on eBay).
By October she landed the cover of Playboy magazine, and by February of 1990, Pamela Anderson was Playmate of the Month, appearing in the coveted centerfold of the issue. With her budding modeling career, Anderson moved to Los Angeles and won the role of Lisa the Tool Girl on the first two seasons of the hit sitcom Home Improvement before accepting the role of C.J. Parker on Baywatch in 1992.
Anderson exploded in popularity, appearing on hundreds of magazine covers across the globe and attracting media attention with her every move. Because of the now-iconic Baywatch bathing suit, Anderson joined Farrah Fawcett in making the red one-piece sexier than the bikini. By 1995, she was a worldwide phenomenon causing a media frenzy and overshadowing every film at the Cannes Film Festival that year when she announced her involvement with the soon to go into production Barb Wire.
“When I read the comic book, I knew that nobody could play this character but me. I agreed to do it without even seeing a script.”
Anderson was over the moon to be the star of a big, mainstream Hollywood movie, and to play such an empowered character as Barb Wire. If she took the advice of her manager, however, the opportunity may have passed her by.
“My manager wanted to turn this down, and told me, ‘You’re not going to play a cartoon character.’”
But after third billing in a couple of low-budget thrillers (Snapdragon and Raw Justice; notice she’s front and center on both posters), Anderson was ready for a big, star-making picture, as well as a character she identified with.
“There’s an evil, twisted, dark streak inside me that I finally get to explore with this character.”
Adam Rifkin, fresh off his 1994 action-comedy The Chase starring Charlie Sheen, was brought on board to direct.
Production on Barb Wire was set to begin in California and Mississippi in the spring of 1995, and by this time Anderson had gotten married to Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee (the two married mere days after their first date in February, and they would divorce in 1998). Barb Wire would officially be marketed as starring Pamela Anderson Lee.
Despite the anticipation of the role and the excitement of her new marriage, both Anderson and the production were headed for a rocky few weeks.
Producers on Barb Wire were not liking what they saw in the early dailies of production, deeming the footage “unsatisfactory.” Just nine days into the shoot, Adam Rifkin was fired. Rifkin explained to Film Threat what happened:
“There was a feud going on between the company that was financing the film and the comic book company [Dark Horse] that owned the character. I was hired by the comic book company and the financing company wanted their director hired. So in the midst of their feuding, I took the fall and got fired.”
Rifkin would go on to direct Detroit Rock City and write Mouse Hunt and Small Soldiers later in the decade. As for briefly directing Pamela Anderson? “She was great.”
“The guy” the financiers wanted was the less experienced David Hogan. Hogan had directed almost 50 music videos for artists such as Prince, Rod Stewart, Gin Blossoms, Sheryl Crow, and many more. Most recently, and perhaps most appealing to the financial backers of Barb Wire, Hogan directed the action sequences as a second unit director on Batman Forever.
After Rifkin was fired, Anderson noted that things on set were a little tense. Much to Hogan’s credit he pulled the set together like a professional, even encouraging Anderson and the crew to contribute creatively on the fly while filming.
With production back on track, Pamela Anderson was about to suffer a devastating setback.
Anderson went all out in her preparation for and portrayal of Barb Wire.
This included several hours a day training in kickboxing, firearms, and motorcycle riding in what were becoming 18 hour days. “I crashed a few times and ran into a few fences along the way,” Anderson said of learning to ride the very large Triumph Thunderbird.
But several weeks into filming, she suffered a miscarriage. “I didn’t know I was pregnant and I lost the baby,” she said at the time. She and Tommy Lee were devastated. Anderson would miss four days while production halted, a period she said that “everybody blew out of proportion like I missed a lot of work.”
Anderson returned to work ready for the remainder of the very physical shoot.
With the trauma of a miscarriage fresh in her mind, she should get more credit for the amount of physical work she put into Barb Wire, as well as the mental awareness needed to go along with it.
“I love doing the stunt work,” Anderson said, “it’s choreography like a dance, you really have to hit all your marks.”
Hogan was very impressed with what he saw in his lead actress.
“She’s been amazing doing most of the stuff that we thought we were going to use a stunt double for, including the fight scenes. She looks beautiful, but she’s got a tremendous, vicious kick.”
“People don’t realize that I’m pretty athletic,” Anderson said.
She had taken karate in the past, so a lot of the kickboxing was easy for her to pick up (the fight scene where Barb blows a hole in the wall through a mattress has Anderson going toe to toe with a real Thai national kickboxing champion). She was doing it all, including a scene where she was strapped to a helicopter, despite being afraid of heights.
“Hey, try getting Stallone or Schwarzenegger to do all their own stunts in a 17-inch corset and stiletto heels,” Anderson said.
That’s a fitting statement from the actress, as producer Mike Richardson said Pamela always wanted to be “Pambo.”
Rocky start aside, the production for Barb Wire finished on a high note. The dailies looked good, the action looked good, and the excitement around the film was building.
Anderson was particularly proud of what she saw. “I’ve been watching these dailies thinking, ‘That looks damn good!’” Also, in a rare occurrence, Anderson was proud of herself as well. “It’s also something I’m proud of, and I never say that about anything I do.” Actor Jack Noseworthy, who plays Charlie, Barb’s brother in the film, noticed the dailies weren’t the only thing that looked good, saying of Anderson, “She’s perfect. When you look at the comic book, it’s obvious that Pamela Anderson is Barb Wire.”
While Barb Wire isn’t exactly a direct remake of Casablanca, the similarities in the plot are striking.
Casablanca tells the story of cynical nightclub owner Rick Blain, living in Casablanca, Morocco during World War II. Rick’s Cafe is often under pressure from authorities because it is known as a somewhat safe haven for refugees seeking illicit letters of transit that will help them travel freely around German-occupied Europe. When Rick’s former lover shows up with her husband, Rick reluctantly agrees to help them sneak out of the country.
In Barb Wire, Barb is the cynical nightclub owner of a nightclub in Steel City, the last free city during America’s second Civil War. Barb’s club, The Hammerhead, is often under pressure from authorities because it attracts a shady group of characters (to get through Steel City, you need to get through Barb Wire). When Barb’s former lover shows up with his wife, Barb reluctantly agrees to help sneak them out of the country. Hey, if you’re going to re-imagine a film that is a classic among classics, you might as well get creative.
The film opens with Pamela Anderson Lee on full display.
With water spraying all around her, dripping off her body as she dances and withers with sexy, striptease movements, her breasts are barely contained in her tiny, skin-tight dress. While it’s alleged that Hogan was instructed to add some nudity to the film, it’s also alleged that the opening scene was Anderson’s idea. The actress apparently had a wild dream where she was sprayed with champagne while doing a “nasty dance.” It may not be the opening that Casablanca had, but Casablanca didn’t star Pamela Anderson.
Anderson’s sexual prowess isn’t used here to merely display Pamela Anderson’s sexual prowess. Ok, it is used to merely display her sexual prowess, but it also weaponizes her character. Just the sight of Barb is enough to mesmerize her male adversaries, stunning them more effectively than any tazer or can of mace ever could. This allows her to take control of any situation. As simple as that may be, Barb always ends up on the throwing end of a high heel to the forehead.
In short, Anderson is so stunning that any man who is on the hit list of Barb Wire essentially welcomes death right through their proverbial front door.
When Barb’s ex-lover, Axel Hood (Temuera Morrison), shows up at her nightclub, he is desperate for her help to sneak his wife, Cora D (Victoria Rowell), across the border into Canada. Cora D is a former scientist who worked for the Congressional Directorate, the evil uprising attempting to take over the United States.
Cora D seeks the safety of Canada so she can announce to the world the deadly biological weapon the Congressional Directorate plans to use against the resistance, known as the United Front. Axel and Cora D need Barb because an illegal pair of contact lenses with the ability to evade retinal scanners at border checkpoints is believed to have found their way into the Hammerhead nightclub.
Under the orders of the Congressional Directorate, Colonel Victor Pryzer (Steve Railsback) is tasked with finding and killing Cora D.
The technology and set pieces are a mish-mash of old and new technology. What looks like 1980s era computers are hooked up with more futuristic-looking props to create a memory reading machine.
In this scene, Colonel Pryzer has a woman from Steel City hooked up to a memory reading device to help locate Cora D. The woman is strapped to a table in what looks like a steampunk bikini, with bronzed metal, bike chain operated gears, and modern circuitry placed on her body and half her face.
Set decorator Lisa Robyn Deutsch and art director Dins Danielsen created a smart and rather fascinating design that shows a futuristic time with complex technology throughout the film.
But in a country ravaged and cash-strapped by war, this technology must run by any means necessary, even if it means jerry-rigging it with older components.
Steel City is a filthy, grimy, industrial hellscape populated with equally filthy and grimy characters.
The chief of police, Chief Alexander Willis (Xander Berkeley) is as corrupt as the city he works for. Along with Colonel Victor Pryzer, Willis raids the Hammerhead looking for Cora D and the illegal lenses.
Barb plays dumb, and the story kicks into high gear. Alliances, double-crosses, shoot-outs, near-misses, reverse double-crosses, one-liners, explosions, and plenty of Pamela Anderson looking too hot to handle ensues in what can only be described as trashy, big budget, big fun, sci-fi nonsense.
Anderson isn’t as bad in this film as history says she is.
Granted, her delivery at times is said in the exact way it would be said if simply read off the scripted page, but her performance matches the hopeless conditions of the junkyard city she lives in. Not only that, her muted demeanor is one of a woman who was betrayed by her lover and now lives a life where she trusts no one.
Anderson and her character can’t reach the layered levels of, say, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, but she’s a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense, badass who walks the walk and talks the talk.
Barb Wire said it best: “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. And in this world, you have to give everything you got.”
Anderson indeed gave everything she’s got.
Barb Wire culminates in an impressive hand-to-hand fight between Barb and Colonel Pryzer high up in the air on a suspended forklift above the docks. Anderson, who is afraid of heights, said this fight sequence being 80 feet up in the air on a crane was the toughest stunt for her to perform. She said she didn’t think about how high up she actually was until she was back down on the ground looking up. Not only is this crane sequence fantastic fun, but it also leads to a classic villain death.
With her voluminous, platinum blonde hair, wide, big-lipped smile, and girl-next-door cheeks, all looking back at you with seductive, cat-like eyes, Pamela Anderson is a walking fantasy. She’s the epitome of what the Barb Wire comic book character is, and no other actress at the time could have pulled off the look as flawlessly (just don’t call her “babe”).
Instantly able to strike a model-like pose following a don’t-fuck-with-me strut, Barb Wire was the perfect film and character to launch Anderson from the small screen to the big screen. It’s unfortunate that both critics and audiences didn’t agree.
Anderson could sell magazines at the newsstand (she holds the record for most Playboy covers with 14), but she couldn’t sell tickets at the box office.
Barb Wire opened May 3, 1996 with a dismal $1.8 million, failing to crack the top ten. The film would fizzle with a less than $4 million total take, not even half its reported budget of $9 million. Critics trashed it, audiences dismissed it, and Pamela Anderson’s hope as an actress of making the leap to the big screen disintegrated in one single weekend.
What’s most overlooked and dismissed is Anderson’s rather fun attitude at times with the sassy body language to match.
A little head movement here, an eyebrow arch there, and plenty of silent eye rolls. It’s refreshing that Anderson actually manages to give some personality, in small doses, to the character of Barb Wire (she shines the most in her scenes with Udo Kier).
Critic Roger Ebert, while not loving the movie, and along with mentioning the Casablanca similarities, at least wrote that “Barb Wire has a high energy level and a sense of deranged fun.”
It’s clear to see that’s exactly what Barb Wire set out to be.
A video game adaptation for PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and PC was announced by GamePro magazine in 1996 from GT Interactive. But after the film’s terrible box office performance, the game (reported to have Resident Evil-like gameplay) was canceled and never made. Another victim of the disappointing performance of Barb Wire was the source material for the film; the comic series was scrapped (a reboot lasted 8 issues in 2015). When released on video in September, the film didn’t make an impact there either, only spending one week in the top 20 of the video rental charts.
As for director David Hogan, he has only one film credit after Barb Wire a year later with Most Wanted, starring Keenan Ivory Wayans and Jon Voight.
While promoting Barb Wire, Anderson was asked what she learned from the experience of making the film.
She referenced her miscarriage and stressed the need to take care of one’s self. She concluded with, “I learned a lot about myself and my limitations.”
She didn’t know it during that interview, but the release of Barb Wire would also teach Anderson about the limitations of her career, which peaked during the buildup to the film’s opening weekend.
Entertainment Weekly referred to Anderson as a “blank vixen,” helping to spread the idea that there’s nothing to her. No credit for being a strong, independent female character? No credit for performing a lot of her own stunts (her choice, by the way)?
If there’s a place for Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, and Stallone to wreak mindless havoc on the big screen and be widely accepted as entertaining superstars, then there’s room for Pamela Anderson kicking ass and looking gorgeous doing it.
Fortunately, she would find success back on the small screen a couple of years later starring in V.I.P., a show that successfully tapped into Anderson’s action chops and allowed her funny side to shine through.
Every day during the filming of Barb Wire, the makeup artists would paint a barbed wire tattoo around Anderson’s left bicep. She liked the way it looked and, confirming her excitement for and confidence in the role, decided to get the barbed wire permanently inked onto her arm. In 2013, Anderson had the tattoo removed, leaving a faded marking where it once was.
But like the barely-there, faded outline on Anderson’s arm, more than 20 years later Barb Wire faintly remains in the public consciousness. Both Cardi B and Kendall Jenner have posted pics on their Instagram dressed as Barb Wire for Halloween, the caption reading “don’t call me babe.”
It’s no classic, but perhaps Barb Wire was ahead of its time. It feels more resonant today than ever. The film deserves to be revisited. In the words of Bogart’s Rick Blain, ”Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.”