While watching "Barb Wire" I was reminded of a childhood lesson, when my mother explained to me the difference between laughing with someone and laughing at someone.
Pamela Anderson Lee, a walking, talking Barbie doll if ever there was one — albeit an enhanced Barbie doll — seems to know she's perceived as a joke, and postures herself to take advantage of that joke throughout her first big-screen starring role.
The script calls for gags to be consistently made at Lee's expense — as when a sleazy bail bondsman leeringly remarks, "You're looking rather buoyant this evening," or when a policeman observes that she has "most impressive assets!"
But there's something sad about Lee purposely sculpting her breasts to resemble basketballs, then parading around topless or nearly topless for most of the film, while her character is supposed to comically strike a blow for feminism when she kills bad guys who call her "Babe."
Perhaps she would prefer, "Bimbo."
"Barb Wire," based on a cult comic book, is set in 2017 — "the worst year of my life," the title character laments. She is a bounty hunter and owner of a rough-and-tumble bar called the Hammerhead Club, which is located in Steel Harbor, the last free zone in America after a devastating Second Civil War. (Though "free" hardly seems to be the word for this crime-infested combination of "Mad Max" and "Escape from New York.")
And just to immediately alert the audience that it has not entered the auditorium playing "Oliver & Company," "Barb Wire" begins with Lee dancing topless under the credits while being sprayed with water, a moment that would better serve her Playboy video.
As the credits wind down, a heckler calls her "Babe," and Lee throws her spiked heel at him, impaling his forehead. As she walks offstage, she mutters, "If one more person calls me `Babe' . . . ." And a running gag is born.
After that, Lee becomes James Bond, employing all kinds of high-tech gadgetry to capture bad guys for money, while her brother, blinded in the war, is drinking himself to death in her bar, and a fellow who resembles Daddy Warbucks is running the joint.
The central plot has Lee reluctantly recruited to help idealistic rebel forces combat the evil federal government, represented by Steve Railsback (a low-rent Tommy Lee Jones), whose troops dress like members of the Gestapo.
But the film is really about violence and sexuality, displayed with music-video flash and pizazz, stealing liberally from various other futuristic thrillers and utilizing a storyline derived from . . . are you ready? . . . "Casablanca."
Lee plays the Bogie character, believe it or not, though her interpretation would seem to owe more to Russ Meyer's biker chicks in "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" in a performance that consists primarily of strutting about in her tight, revealing leather outfits, pouting or sneering and reading her dialogue in a breathy, inarticulate snarl, while dropping one-liners that are supposed to make her enemies wilt and the audience laugh.
And, in places, audience-members will laugh.
But will they be laughing with her, or at her.
"Barb Wire" is rated R for considerable violence and mayhem, a couple of excruciating torture scenes, and quite a bit of profanity and vulgarity.