Where does one begin a piece on Russell Crowe, Oceania’s most precocious and visible film export after Nicole Kidman? Which scene or what image first “made” him and encapsulated his particular qualities? The man is clearly every inch a movie star; devastatingly handsome, and often soft-spoken, yet completely devoid of mannerisms or the limitations in acting ability that often define both the appeal and the career trajectory of big-name personality actors, and on which the business of popular filmmaking once depended and still thrives on.
If Crowe has any similarities with a classical Hollywood star one might argue a certain resemblance to Gary Cooper. In keeping with this, David Thomson’s reading of Cooper could equally be applied to Crowe: “The young Cooper was a laconic, beautiful, solitary soul, saved from vanity by his preoccupation with some deeper mystery. Like so many of the great stars, he gave the impression of being caught unexpectedly in his own thoughts.” (1) But how well do these particular qualities serve Crowe in the two major Hollywood biopics he has starred in; as Jeffrey Wigand, the mousy whistle-blower with great inner resolve in the excellent The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999), and as the Nobel Prize-winning schizophrenic mathematician, John Nash, in A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001)? In truth, the latter was a rather simpleminded film with a Carlylean view of historical figures that soft-pedalled mental illness, even as Crowe’s lead performance reached a masterly level beyond Howard’s reassuring brand of filmmaking.
Crowe began as an uncredited child-actor in the 1970s, before landing a guest spot on Neighbours, one of several eminently exportable Aussie soaps more notable for their longevity than anything else. Although he appeared (often in supporting roles) in a number of significant Australian films and TV series in the late 1980s and early 1990s, nothing could have possibly prepared audiences for the impact Crowe would make in the best film he has starred in “down-under”, as the rancidly hateful and highly articulate neo-Nazi ringleader Hando in Geoffrey Wright’s unsparing chase-movie, Romper Stomper.
This truly excellent film was first and foremost a loud yet perfectly modulated blast against a certain tradition (to paraphrase Truffaut’s most striking piece of criticism) of often gentle (even genteel), countrified stories (albeit of considerable merit) for which Oceania’s cinema had first become internationally famous. Lee Tamahori’s debut feature, Once Were Warriors (1994) from neighbouring New Zealand (Crowe’s country of birth), would buck the same trend two years later. In some respects, these two films were very similar: their presentation of intractable contemporary urban problems showed impressive anthropological nous, and the mixing of stylised visuals with a thunderous narrative drive, applied to subject matter conventionally equated with “screen realism” that is bolstered by outstanding performances, made them leap out of the pack.
Both films deliver emotional body blows to the audience while making them feel and think; as the decorum of vaguely sinister schoolgirl picnics filmed in soft-focus and the endearing, folksy Hollywoodised “G’day mate” wisdom of jovial croc-hunters were left in the dust of the parched, sun-baked outback.
Crowe enters Romper Stomper in a slick opening scene that very much resembles earlier, seminal street-gang movies noted for their stylistic flamboyance like A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) and The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979). Yet despite of (or because of) the surrounding visual pyrotechnics, Crowe immediately projects a screen presence that focuses attention on his character, establishing group hierarchy as well as subtly informing the audience that they are witnessing a bona-fide star on the rise, capable of holding even the most bustling scene together with effortless ease. Credit too should go to director Wright, who unlike, say, Tony Scott, never mistakes flare for flair in his overall mise en scène. The scene is a near perfect illustration of aesthetician Arnold Berleant’s view of filmic art: “like recorded music, the substance of film is exclusively perceptual, while its technical origins remain hidden. The cinematic world then is purely phenomenal.” (2)
The opening scene grabs the audience in a vice, and the film never lets up thereafter. We see Hando and his cohorts terrorise and beat up a pair of young Vietnamese youths in the kind of dark and dingy underpass that signals urban menace, neon lit and cinematically rain-slicked, as the diegetic sounds of the scene become exaggerated and guttural, taking on a subjective colouring that is more expressionistic than realistic.
As Crowe confronts one of the Vietnamese kids and pushes him up against the wall, he delivers the following lines of dialogue, filled with the sort of pent up racist aggression that serves as a harrowingly believable prelude to the blunt violence in which the scene climaxes. Crowe says menacingly: “Why did you push me? Look at me. I want to tell to tell you something. This is not your country.” Once the characters are presented in close-up and their names blazed across the screen in captions (a trick copied to great effect, and made into a signature by Nicolas Winding Refn in the similarly hard-hitting Danish actioner Pusher ), the scene is set for one of the greatest chase-movies of the decade. Romper Stomper drew some rather unfair criticism for its stylistically lively approach to the subject matter, but also saw the arrival of a star of the highest order, even if Crowe, as Bogart had done early in his career, essentially played the bad guy who gets it in the end.