Nostalgic chaos: How Romper Stomper left an everlasting mark in Australian cinema

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Nostalgic chaos: How Romper Stomper left an everlasting mark in Australian cinema

Words by Zoe Markos

Romper Stomper, directed by Geoffrey Wright, was released in 1992. Three decades later, its legacy depicts the violent extremes of racism in Australia, in a highly confrontational manner to the generations of Australian filmmakers and watchers who followed.

Romper Stomper follows a group of skinheads who are rebelling the changes in their community, specifically Vietnamese migration. Footscray is the main location throughout the film.

The film was pioneering in its brutality in a decade that also saw the release of American History X in 1998. In both films, the outsiders (Asian and Mexican Immigrants) are terrorised and beaten by neo-Nazi gangs.

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Romper Stomper’s opening scene is unequivocally violent, leading the audience into a dark tunnel, where we see a Vietnamese couple assaulted and told, “this is not your country.” It’s only one of a series of scenes in which the film depicts the repercussions of young men, without purpose in society, unable to either grapple or articulate their emotions.

Later, four of the gang members enter a pub, confronting two Vietnamese men standing in front of a pool table. The close-ups of each member are immediately intimidating, as the camera slowly pans from one character to the next and then zooms out to the gang’s leader Hando (Russell Crowe) as he threateningly says, “How ya goin?” It erupts into one of the biggest fights in the film – and one of the most chaotic and extreme fight scenes of the decade in Australian film – as the hand-held camerawork forces the audience to experience the intensity of the scene.

Crowe’s depiction of Hando became a sensation of sorts and it sent him on the path to Hollywood. If you watch the film today, he’s almost unrecognisable with his shaved head, swastika tattoo, twisted smile and powerful persona. Crowe’s finest achievement was maintaining a grounded performance amidst a film of unbelievably cruelty, coming as close to an empathetic performance as possible given the subject matter,

The film uses an eerie colour theme of blue and red tones and adopts many jump cuts and close-up frames that allow the audience to understand the high stakes for each of the characters. As the intensity rises, you’re also introduced to the only female lead, Gabe – played by Jacqueline McKenzie – who’s dealing with a traumatic history of sexual abuse.

The mise en scène throughout the film immediately sets it apart from the majority of other iconic Australian films, calling back to other underground classics like Dogs in Space and Pure Shit. The way they live, the scumminess of their clothes and neighbourhood and the unending graffiti present in nearly every take instantly help us identify where they are and the type of life they are living.

Romper Stomper still stands up to an evolving culture of film criticism today, but of course if it were made now, there would be notable differences. Throughout its one hour and thirty-five minute run, you see a mass amount of intense and sometimes unbearable scenes that could easily be considered gratuitous.

Perhaps most notably, it’s an entirely different and far more shocking depiction of racism in Australia than the way it’s been captured by any iconic Australian film since, bar perhaps Samson & Delilah (2009).

Looking For Alibrandi (2000) and Wog Boy (2000) flip the narrative and capture the life of migrants from their own perspective. Both tackle racism in their own way – and are ostensibly comedies – but are worth noting in this discussion as examples of how a film shot from the perspective of Vietnamese-Australian migrants could have had an exceptionally greater impact on Australian society.

Alas, the gruesomeness of Romper Stomper’s finalscene and the two gang members on the same side, as violent against each other as they were against others, show the audience how quickly things are able to shift and change in the world they uniquely occupy.

It’s understandable that this film wasn’t without controversy. One of the most prominent film critics in Australian history, David Stratton, refused to formally review Romper Stomper; instead describing it as “A Clockwork Orange without the intellect… a disturbing, essentially misconceived picture,” also stating, “I’ve rarely seen a film that troubled me as much as that film did.”

Despite the controversy, Wright was able to evoke a massive reaction from an Australian audience all-too-often criticised of whitewashing the past. Stan’s remake five years ago are proof that the conversations it raises still endure 30 years on.