From comic strip to action film: a tall order, but somehow Tank Girl manages to be more than just a Mad Maxine.

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The makers of Tank Girl have set themselves not one but three problems: to translate what were originally comic-strip images into live- action film; to Americanise a world set in a future Australia but dreamt up in Worthing; and to have some female input (director Rachel Talalay, actress Lori Petty) into a boys' dream of a strong and independent woman. The surprising thing is not that some elements of the film seem tatty or second hand - the first half hour is pretty much Mad Maxine - but that a rather endearing tone does emerge, round about the halfway mark.

Talalay has chosen to retain some comic- book images, and has even included some animation, which makes her job that much harder. It would be much easier to accept live action if we weren't so often reminded of what we are missing. She even uses cartoon graphics to stand in for bits of film language: the establishing shot (the outside of the headquarters of Water and Power has been drawn but not made) and even the reaction shot - Tank Girl laughing at one of her own jokes. Cartoon is an inherently anarchic medium where violence has no necessary consequences. Achieving a similar affect in live action is downright laborious, and every time Talalay inserts a graphic image she kills her own momentum.

The film, set in 2033, takes place in a waterless world so familiar from cinematic fantasy (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Mad Max, Dune) that it seems like the past. There are virtually no necessities but some luxuries, no infrastructure but a few surviving fragments of hi-tech. One novelty is the weapon the evil Kessley (Malcolm McDowell) plunges into people's backs from time to time, which simultaneously kills and recycles them by way of an expanding plastic container, turning a surplus person into a valuable bottle of mineral water.

You might think that the concept of personal style would be unlikely to survive the apocalypse, but in the world of Tank Girl fashion sense is the last thing to go. The Mad Max films were sufficiently committed to the logic of live action to insist that Mel Gibson wore the same leathers throughout a film - they just got crustier - but Tank Girl is a wanderer in a constant state of makeover, a nomad with a fresh T-shirt for all occasions. For one dizzy sequence, she produces from nowhere dark glasses, a scarf and little lacy gloves, to masquerade as a fashion editor working on a beefcake (or pork-cake) calendar of "The Men of Water and Power".

A cartoonist can suggest opposite characteristics with a few deft lines, so that a drawn Tank Girl can be both pristine and damaged. Lori Petty has to work harder to balance elements of strength and vulnerability. She has only one face and one body: watching her try to dramatise different combinations of aggression and softness by way of costume and grooming is like watching a speeded-up film of the career of Madonna, who has attempted very much the same thing. The presence of Bjork's voice on the soundtrack hints at what the film makers wanted - a persona simultaneously forceful, fey and faintly demonic. Petty does manage to convey something both dirty minded and innocent. Tank Girl is insistently sexual in speech but more or less old fashioned in action. She's a one-man woman, or at least a one creature woman, and her escapades are well within the bounds of a 15 certificate.

When the film feels free to call on its own references, it finds its feet. In a sequence in the Liquid Silver Bordello, Tank Girl threatens to shave the madam's head unless she sings Cole Porter's "Let's Do It". Most people in this position would head straight for the chorus, but the madam (Ann Magnuson) is fastidious enough to start with the little-known verse. Before you know it, the place has erupted in a retro dance routine, and Talalay's camera is looking down on it all from a Busby Berkeley angle.

Even greater heights of daftness are scaled when we are introduced to the Rippers, mutants whose DNA has been spiked with a stiff dose of kangaroo. They "interrogate" Tank Girl, giving her whiffs of nitrous oxide to make her talk, and the resulting scene is a version of the Mad Hatter's tea party. Stan Winston's prosthetic designs are striking and surprisingly full of character. The leader of the group, played by Ice-T, is suave, philosophical and given to reciting bad poetry and playing the saxophone, but the real star is Booga (Jeff Kober), whose genetic base is canine rather than human. Booga is gentle, loyal and none too bright, and when did someone like that last get the girl?

Perhaps the Rippers should have been introduced earlier on. They certainly come close to stealing it, but perhaps it's only that they restore a precarious balance. Tank Girl's boyfriend at the beginning of the film is a more- or-less standard-issue hunk (apologies to Brian Wimmer). She sets out to avenge his death, but can't seem to keep her mind on the job. Various men take a sexual interest in her, but they're vile without exception and she turns them down in a scrupulously ball-breaking fashion. She adopts a protegee jet girl (Naomi Watts), and pretends to be her lover, but actually they're just playmates. Tank Girl gets so regressively perky in this relationship that her professed admiration for Doris Day comes to seem frighteningly sincere. Then, at last, she meets a compatible creature. Every new version of femininity hypothesises a new sort of man, and this is Tank Girl's complement: shy, tender and spontaneous, as childlike in his sexuality as she is.

Before the Rippers come into the picture, the special-effect element of Tank Girl is its weakest point. Model shots are distinctly dodgy, and backdrops rarely convincing. But Winston's work on these endearing mutants changes all that. The Rippers are democratically organised, and take votes in a properly kangaroo manner ("Those in favour raise their tails"). Their ears are mobile, to the point of being mildly prehensile, and there is something oddly touching about Booga lying in bed with Tank Girl and caressing the top of her head with an ear. It's a commonplace to say that an actor is freed by a mask, but it doesn't happen so often when the mask covers the whole body and takes three hours to apply. Nevertheless, when Ice- T and Jeff Kober get in touch with their marsupial side, the result is some of the quirkiest masculine imagery in recent cinema.

n On release from Friday

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