In the intervening 25 years since Romper Stomper first screened with a young Russell Crowe, much has changed.
Skinheads now sport #1 buzz-cuts. ‘Ethnic clusters’ are no longer confined to Vietnamese but Muslim-based communities. Australian ‘patriots’ now oppose the establishment. Media is an active participant in stirring up hostilities. And Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie) has grown up to become a businesswoman running childcare centres.
The Footscray backdrop so prominent in Geoffrey Wright’s 1992 acclaimed film has broadened, to match the wider lens of a 6 part sequel on Stan. It has largely moved further west where everybody has big screen TVs in McMansions, but there are also hotbeds of drama in St. Kilda and Melbourne’s CBD.
The central character in this ensemble is Kane (Toby Wallace), a young ex-Army recruit who is largely a silent observer to an urban warfare waged by Blake (Lachy Hulme), leader of the extreme right Patriot Blue group and a masked ‘Anti-Fasc’ group. If Kane is the Russell Crowe of this new-gen tale then he is well-positioned to succeed. But in this world of binge TV playing style, he is one of the new breed of performers to contain his emotions, as opposed to the fists and tirades of Crowe.
The offensive, blinkered views of Blake and his young Christian wife Zoe (Sophie Lowe), ignite much of the opening action. A Halal Festival turns bloody, and caught in the middle of it are young Lebanese couple Laila (Nicole Chamoun) and Farid (Julian Maroun). Subversive group ‘Anti-Fasc’, led by Petra (Lily Sullivan) and Danny (Tysan Towney), stage public defacings and Assange-like events all for the benefit of their weapon of choice, social media.
There is a further sub-plot with Kane’s sister Cindi (Markella Kavenagh) who escapes juvenile detention. David Wenham will appear as a self-serving SKY News-like media host, whipping up debates and ratings, while Gabe is seen visiting her bed-ridden father Martin (Cliff Green replacing actor Alex Scott). Original cast member Dan Wyllie will also appear.
Expanding the palette from the film’s original focus will likely require a number of episodes to ascertain whether it is a better form than a telemovie run.
Pleasingly Geoffrey Wright is writer and director for the first two episodes (that ominous, marching theme music is back), but while the urban ‘enemy’ may have shifted cultures in 2017, the monster from within, as personified by the Patriot Blue gang, is far more sinister than the thuggery of Crowe’s skinhead gang.
“We’re in a war, we have to win,” Blake tells his followers.
“One day that city will be a battlefield, without discipline we don’t stand a f***ing chance.”
But cracks appear in his flag-bearing group when Zoe is drawn to Kane, nearly as much as she is to alcohol. Anarchy bubbles underneath the supposed united and righteous.
Elsewhere it is Laila and Farid who emerge as the moral centre of the tale, trying to hold down jobs under judgmental eyes, in a city where Muslims are routinely labelled as either “terrorists or Waleed Alys.”
Of the performances a bleach-blonde Lachy Hulme is to be applauded for undertaking such an unlikeable, unpopular character with the conviction needed of a more heroic one, and Nicole Chaiman impresses in a sympathetic role. Toby Wallace steps into the shadow of Crowe well, although whenever he nears Sophie Lowe, both risk turning hypnotic with sullen looks that give way to lust.
I would have liked more from McKenzie, given her links to the original, but watch for some pleasing cameos, such as one from veteran actor Terry Norris.
Sometimes in skyscrapers, offices and affluent homes, this Romper Stomper shifts its street cred and insight into gang wars to a broader, politicised fight. Rather than fisticuffs in back alleys, the war is now waged on Facebook and primetime TV.
The fact there is still a war at all is arguably what justifies a sequel in the first place. With such a strong pedigree fingers crossed it can live up to the fight.
Romper Stomper premieres Monday January 1 on Stan.