This Early Russell Crowe Role Remains His Most Terrifying
Russell Crowe is one of the most inherently intimidating actors of his generation. Between the epic combat sequences in Gladiator, the pulse-pounding boxing matches in Cinderella Man, the flashes of extreme violence in L.A. Confidential, and the violent shootouts in 3:10 to Yuma, Crowe never fails to put his physicality on display; his recent turn as a violent road rager in Unhinged even played up his reputation of being notoriously volatile. While Crowe’s roles are often dark ones, there’s generally something at least somewhat understandable (if not necessarily relatable) about the men he portrays. However, Crowe erased any notion of sympathy with early performance in the 1992 Australian independent film Romper Stomper. He completely transforms into a monstrous character, and this early role remains his most terrifying.
Directed by Geoffrey Wright, who would go on to help launch Ben Mendelsohn and Brittany Murphys’ careers with his later films, Romper Stomper centers on the neo-Nazi skinhead movement that emerged within blue-collar working communities in suburban Melbourne. Hando (Crowe) is a particularly psychopathic young man who finds a gang that subscribes to the same xenophobic beliefs that he does. While this small unit of allies attempts to support each other financially and live together, Hando’s unhinged rage proves to be unsustainable for any amount of time, and effectively ruins any chance of stability. Crowe shows the cyclical nature of hatred as he becomes blinded by his own animalistic nature and loses everything as a result.
Similar to the wave of low-budget independent crime filmss that emerged in the United States in the wake of Reservoir Dogs, Australian cinema saw an uptick of neo-noir thrillers in the 1990s. Romper Stomper was released long before Crowe was a household name, so he came into the role as a relative unknown. He had something to prove and needed to be memorable in order to stand out among the many rising stars, and Romper Stomper provided a depiction of fascism, generational hatred, and self-destructive vileness that no one that viewed it would forget. Crowe would go on to work with some significant auteurs, but there’s a wildness to his work in this low-budget project that he’s never topped.
Crowe Is Unhinged and Volatile
Global concerns about the rise of extremist violence among young people became a hot button issue throughout the 1990s; between France’s La Haine and the United States’ American History X, independent films offered an unfiltered and important reminder of the ways that these insidious movements emerge. Crowe shows within a gruesome opening scene the type of violence that comes from a society that has no way of containing him; he’s not a calculated planner, and just seems to pop up completely deranged, as if the Vietnamese characters have insulted him directly by simply existing. The stark difference between Crowe and the Vietnamese teenagers that he assaults with his gang is staggering; Crowe may be young, but he’s already peppered with wounds and clearly has experience doing attacks like this.
One of the scariest parts of his performance is that Wright doesn’t give any reason for Hando’s line of thinking. He lacks the eloquence of Edward Norton’s character in American History X, who is educated and grew more ingrained by neo-Nazism as he grew up. There’s no inciting incident, no justification for his beliefs that explain Hando’s hatred. There’s a horror in seeing how these types of evil movements emerge in something like American History X or La Haine, but Crowe’s self-destructive animosity for anyone who’s different from him is somehow just as scary.
Crowe Spotlights a Real Issue
The brilliance of Romper Stomper is that it delves into the difficult conversations that must be had about fascist movements. Hando is an outlier even within his own group; while his cohorts, specifically Davey (Daniel Pollock), seem to be more anti-establishment than singularly racist, Hando has no institution that he’s narrowed his rage towards. This doesn’t make any of the other characters more redeeming in any way, but it does offer a more complex understanding of radicalism than most films are willing to incorporate. Davey isn’t redeemed in Romper Stomper’s eyes, but he has the capacity to communicate his thoughts in a way that Hando completely lacks.
As if his viewpoints aren’t frightening enough, the film doubles down on his abusive treatment of women. Davey learns that Hando’s girlfriend Gabrielle (Jacqueline McKenzie) has suffered years of physical and sexual assaults from him, and that not all the wounds on her body came from the people the gang has been brawling with. While on rewatch it’s clear that Gabrielle is terrified of Hando specifically because of their relationship, initially it’s unclear because Crowe demands terror from anyone that he interacts with. Even those that have been brawling with him for years tend to step back when he enters the room, as if his mere presence is enough to end the conversation.
Crowe Shows True Evil
Davey and Gabrielle ultimately form a romantic relationship, as any passing sign of empathy from him is lightyears away from anything that Hando would do. It’s scary because there’s nothing charismatic about Davey, nor are his brief inclinations to check on Gabrielle’s well-being anything out of the ordinary. It doesn’t even come across from Crowe’s performance that he’s particularly attracted to her; he simply assumes that all women are property that he deserves, and that he has the right to abuse her in whatever way he sees as fit.
Crowe’s downfall is no tragedy. As Davey and Gabrielle realize they must conform due to their financial limitations, Crowe shows that Hando is so resonant in his beliefs that he’s unable to agree to anything approaching reason. His death at Davey’s hands (using Hando’s signature Hitler Youth knife) isn’t traditionally rewarding like a crowd pleasing moment; his death is similar to that of Michael Myers in Halloween, as it finally breaks the horror that he commanded anytime he was on-screen.
Romper Stomper isn’t Crowe’s best film, nor is it a perfect one. The depiction of violence has been hotly contested, and there’s a debate to be had on how the film depicts its non-white characters and if they’re treated with any agency. However, Crowe has never been more terrifying; he shows the banality of pure evil.