Most of the skinheads are gone when we revisit the world of Romper Stomper, Geoffrey Wright’s incendiary and controversial 1992 film. Still the ethos remains, albeit under different colours. Instead of the swastika, the Southern Cross. Instead of bashing Vietnamese immigrants, it’s preaching hate while protesting a halal food festival. Instead of the hard, uncompromising gut punch of the original, it’s meandering and kind of pointless.
Yes, Romper Stomper Redux was always going to be controversial. Hell, it was meant to be, and a quick tour of the comment thread of any article on the new Stan series proves that, in that regard, it has been hugely successful. But controversy and quality are not synonyms. Is it any good? Well, no, not particularly.
Whereas RS ’92 kept the focus squarely on the crew of bovver boys run by the charismatic Hando (Russell Crowe, Sir Not Appearing in This Series), RS ’18 spreads a wider net, trying to encompass the complexities and factions of the current state of extremist politics. So we get Patriot Blue, a pastiche of a number of far right outfits but mainly drawn from the True Blue Crew and the Soldiers of Odin, run by mouthy, paunchy, would-be voice of the silent majority, Blake Farron (Lachy Hulme). New blood is introduced when Blake is rescued from a kicking by young ex-soldier Kane (Toby Wallace), a charismatic nationalist who is soon de facto 2IC of the Patriot Blue crew.
That’s the blue corner. In the red corner, Antifasc, Romper Stomper‘s answer to Antifa, a loose and largely ineffectual cell of uni students led by Petra (Lily Sullivan) and Danny (Tysan Towney), who are beginning to move beyond soup kitchens and waving placards to more direct and violent tactics.
Around these two blocs orbit a number of characters, including opportunistic right wing talk show host Jago Zoric (David Wenham); moderate Muslim law student Laila (Nicole Chamoun), thrust into the spotlight after the Patriots and Antifasc clash at a halal food festival; ageing skinhead Magoo (John Brumpton), still holding onto the toxic ideology of his youth; independent Senator Anabasis (Simon Palomares, and that’s a hell of a pun for students of the classics) and more. More than the show can easily track, in fact, and therein lies at least part of the problem: in trying to cover so many elements, so many moving narrative parts, some are given short shrift.
When in doubt, the series defaults to spending time with the racists, who are easily the most complex and intriguing characters presented. This is not necessarily a problem of sympathy, but one of focus; for all that original creator Wright and his co-writers, James Napier Robertson, Omar Musa, and Malcolm Knox, may be trying to present “both sides of the argument”, there’s one side that is always the more engaging – and they’re unarguably the bad guys. Plenty of research has gone into the presentation of Patriot Blue; considerably less has been done for their opposite number, who come across as a fairly undifferentiated rabble of university-radicalised malcontents. One character even unironically trots out the old “property is theft” cliche, just to underline their political ideology. It’s pretty laughable stuff, especially if you’re at all familiar with the fringe left, who are neither so joyless nor so unified (The Left’s problem is that they’re too busy fighting their age-old enemies, the Left, to really push in the same direction. Romper Stomper‘s estimate of about half a dozen people able to agree on any one thing is about right).
Still, the show does at least refute the notion that they’re all as bad as each other; as presented, Antifasc may not be as charismatic as the right wing rabble-rousers, but at least they’re not stockpiling machine guns and grenades in a back bush hideout, which Patriot Blue most certainly are. To its credit, Romper Stomper draws a direct line from the openly Nazi skinheads of the past to the crypto-fascist “patriots” of today, although that’s undone a little by having the organisation’s most violent plans put into action by a ghost from the past, rather than coming from Hulme’s bush poetry-spouting demagogue.
Indeed, the series has no small amount of trouble reconciling the past with its current concerns, and elements of the previous film are often worked in awkwardly. In addition to old Magoo (Brumpton, an absolute treasure of a performer, delivers a great, pathos-filled turn here) we also get the return of Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie, killing it), former skinhead arm candy turned successful businesswoman. When we reconnect with her she’s dealing with caring for her dying father, who sexually abused her when she was younger, and also worried about her son – none other than Kane, who is immersing himself in the racist world she has fought to free herself from.
Kane’s paternity is a key plot point, which is an interesting direction to take in a text dealing with poisonous ideologies that put so much emphasis on blood and race, and while the final revelation of the nascent blackshirt’s father is a clever irony, it’s a little lost in the noise. All politics aside, Romper Stomper‘s key problems is a lack of thematic unity, with an over-reliance on shock tactics rather than solid plotting coming a close second. The series may want to show us the current state of race politics play, but it doesn’t have anything to actually say about it; there’s no thesis, no lesson to be learned, either by the audience of the characters. Great actors – and there are some fantastic performances here, have no doubt – are stuck with roles that have no arc. As for the shock tactics? Look, at one point a major character basically dies from slipping on a banana peel – that’s something that should never have gotten off the writing room whiteboard.
Romper Stomper was always supposed to be ugly and confrontational – that’s its brand, after all – but it only manages the former. To be confrontational, it would actually have to interrogate the ideas and worldviews that it presents. At this task, the series fails. But it also fails on a basic narrative level; after three episodes of set up, we’re left with three episodes of barreling towards a foregone and clumsily handled climax that offers no respite, no answers, and, most damningly, no point of view.
What galls is what a wasted opportunity this is. After four and a half hours, Romper Stomper leaves us with nothing; no insight, no voice, no lessons, no discernible point. You could argue that simple representation is enough, but what is being represented? If we want to know the awful state of racial discourse, we just need to look at our news feeds. Good drama offers something more than that – and Romper Stomper is not good drama.