‘Barb Wire': Good, Bad or Just an Average ’90s Stinker?
When Barb Wire was released in the spring of 1996, star Pamela Anderson Lee, as she was then known, was at the height of her popularity. The film did poorly, both with audiences and critics, and became widely regarded as one of the worst films of the decade. However, looking back at it now, that reputation seems mostly due to the fact that people love to use celebrities like Anderson as a punching bag, while the stigma around Barb Wire ignores how many equally terrible movies were made around the same time.
Anderson had burst onto the scene in 1989 by modeling for Playboy, and by 1992 was staring in Baywatch alongside David Hasselhoff. In 1994 she was cast in her first starring role in a movie, Raw Justice, and in February of 1995 she married Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee, cementing her place in the tabloids. The following May saw the release of Barb Wire, which was based on a Dark Horse comic book series, and designed to capitalize on Anderson's popularity.
Set in the then-futuristic year of 2017, during the second American Civil War, it tells the story of the titular character, played by Anderson, who is a nightclub owner and bounty hunter in Steel Harbor, the only free city in America. The plot, which is openly recycled from Casablanca, involves a scientist named Dr. Cora Devonshire (Victoria Rowell) who knows the secret antidote to a virus being developed by the evil American Government – called the Congressional Directorate – so they can end the war.
Although Barb doesn't want to get involved, Dr. Devonshire is accompanied by her husband, Axel Hood (Temuera Morrison), who used to be Barb's lover. So, in exchange for a million dollars, she agrees to get Devonshire and Hood to the airport. The bad guys won't let them go so easily, of course, so a number of action sequences ensue, and for a hot minute Barb considers commandeering the plane that is going to fly the scientist to safety and escaping from Steel Harbor herself. But in the end, her better angels prevail. She puts Devonshire and Hood on the plane, and goes back to her rough and tumble life at the bar.
Watch a Trailer for 'Barb Wire'
The movie bombed. Made for $9 million, it earned just under $3.8 million at the box office and suffered the scorn of critics. Owen Gleiberman, writing at Entertainment Weekly claimed that Anderson felt like a "synthetic" human being and called her "cheesecake served up straight from the lab." And Janet Maslin, in The New York Times, called Barb Wire "a trashy, violent action film that will appeal only to comic readers, curiosity seekers and prison inmates throughout the land."
The film has gone on to be notorious for its trashy terribleness, and not even Den of Geek, famous for rehabilitating old films thought to be worthless, could find much of anything good to say about it when it looked back at the film in 2015.
For the most part, these critics are right. The film may not rank in the all-time pantheon of awful movies, but it isn't very good. Anderson doesn't really act so much as she throws poses, the steam-punk set design is cheesy and while everyone from director David Hogan on down seems to be giving it their all, nearly everything in the film feels like it's not quite working.
But here's the thing: the decade of the '90s was jammed full of similar movies that were equally bad, and most of them haven't stuck around in the popular memory to the degree that Barb Wire has. A somewhat forgotten comic book adaptation fad at the time gave us Tank Girl (1995), Judge Dredd (1995), Steel (1997) and Batman and Robin (1997), all of which were in exactly the same class of quality as Barb Wire. And this despite the fact that both Judge Dredd and Batman and Robin featured huge budgets and big-name stars like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney and Uma Thurman.
Watch a Trailer for 'Steel'
And who could forget Johnny Mnemonic (1995), starring Keanu Reeves, Battlefield Earth (2000), starring John Travolta, or Wild Wild West (1999), starring Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh and Salma Hayek, all of which deservedly bombed?
Nor is it the case that Anderson was the only famous person who was trying to cash in on her celebrity by making movies. Football player Brian Bosworth tried to make the leap in 1991 with the lamentable action flick Stone Cold, and the aforementioned Steel featured NBA star Shaquille O'Neal. Model Cindy Crawford's version of Barb Wire was the romantic thriller Fair Game (1995), which lost in the vicinity of $40 million.
Watch a Trailer for 'Fair Game'
The main difference seems to be that by the time Barb Wire came out, Anderson had earned a reputation for tawdriness, which was easily transferred into the movie. Her marriage to Lee earned her a starring role in the tabloids, and bootleg copies of a famously-stolen sex tape the couple had made were already available when the film premiered.
Barb Wire leans into this, of course. The opening scene is of Anderson engaged in an erotic dance while getting sprayed with champagne, and she spends virtually the entirety of the film in a tight black body suit that's cut narrow below the waist and low above it. But that's par for the course when celebrities get cast in films — the things that made them famous are generally the characteristics that get emphasized. And the film's erotic leanings are nowhere near as lurid as things like Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995) or the legion of lesser known erotic thrillers the decade churned out.
In the end, Barb Wire is no better or worse than many of the films that came out in the years surrounding it. And had Anderson not been involved, that's probably how it would have been remembered – as just another bad movie from a decade that saw its fair share of them.