In the wake of Milo Yiannopoulos' tour, do we really need another Romper Stomper?

Stan’s new series is coming whether we like it or not. But who really wants to watch a show told from the perspective of neo-Nazis and violent alt-righters?

Since news broke that a Romper Stomper television series was in the works, to premiere on Stan on New Year’s Day, the question has been asked: is now the right time for it? The current mood certainly feels incendiary, with the visit to Australia this week of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and the commotion inside and around his sold-out shows.

Who really wants to watch a TV series told from the perspective of neo-Nazis and violent alt-righters? One hardly feels compelled to raise a hand and say “me!”

Confronting art, however, does not adhere to calendar schedules – though an observation like that will be cold comfort to those who believe releasing a next-gen Romper Stomper is like throwing gasoline onto a fire. Accepting that the series is nearly upon us whether we like it or not, a more vital question to ask is whether it is an accurate representation of the times.

Having watched the first two episodes, I can say the answer is unequivocally yes – at times shockingly so. Updating its premise by swapping swastikas for the Southern Cross, the series makes a point that what used to be considered extreme is now mainstream. While back in the early 90s, vermin such as the skinhead Hando (Russell Crowe) and his goons hid in dingy warehouses, they now congregate out in the open – an eerily salient message.

Geoffrey Wright (who helmed the 1992 feature film) returns to the director’s chair to kick the six-part series off, with subsequent eps directed by James Napier Robertson and Daina Reid (who recently directed the superb SBS drama Sunshine). Wright doesn’t pussyfoot around, opening at a halal food festival where a group of white supremacists called Patriot Blue cause a commotion that soon spills over into violence. Hulking ringleader Blake (an eerily convincing Lachy Hulme) fulminates hate speech into a megaphone, ranting about how he can “smell and carcass of the west ... beneath the scent of your cooking.” And how he fears Muslim people will “bully my people into accepting your culture.”

An image from Stan's new series Romper Stomper
Left v right, as imagined in the new series of Romper Stomper. Photograph: Stan

The fight that eventuates takes place between Patriot Blue and a clan of “anti-fash” counter-protesters who wear creepy masks, and storm the scene like henchmen working for Bane. The two groups represent extremities of an ideological divide, the political views of the screenwriters (Wright, James Napier Robertson, Malcolm Knox and Omar Musa) presumably lying somewhere in the middle.

In the second episode, a person caught in the middle of the altercation – left-leaning university student Laila (Nicole Chamoun) – agrees to appear on a current affairs program hosted by an incendiary Andrew Bolt or Alan Jones-esque loudmouth (David Wenham, again spookily effective as an oily figure of authority – following Top of the Lake season one and Ten’s Wake in Fright). The host pretends to be impartial then turns on Laila like a rabid dog, continuously linking Muslim people to terrorism in pursuit of a “gotcha!” moment.

There is a sense we have seen this type of exchange before and that is precisely the point. The scene cleverly crystallises this vexing, dispiriting debate – clearly not one that can be resolved using logic or reason – into a few punchy minutes of screen time. So yes: Romper Stomper feels achingly real and relevant. At times with an electrifying sense of immediacy.

But there is a ring of unease, to put it mildly, from the start. And when some of the characters take the law into their own hands and form a quasi police force, complete with street patrols and administration of vigilante justice, my gut sank further and further towards the floor – and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the series was entering some very dangerous waters.

Whatever your views are on the nature of media influence, an old and complex debate, it is shockingly plausible that these scenes will inspire real-life recreations. In one sense this is why the overarching ideology of the series itself is an important consideration – i.e. which themes or moral messages will be emphasised, and the extent to which certain characters experience victory or defeat, or receive comeuppance (which is not the sort of analysis that can be gleaned from two episodes).

A scene from Romper Stomper
Entering dangerous waters: Romper Stomper feels achingly real and relevant but is accompanied by severe unease. Photograph: Stan

In another sense – as in whether people may appropriate it for their own inspiration – it doesn’t matter. Last month the Labor senator Sam Dastyari was ambushed and abused in a Melbourne pub by a far-right group who called themselves Patriot Blue.

The series inspired racist blockheads who hadn’t even seen it beyond, presumably, watching the trailer. What might they do after watching members of Patriot Blue deliver stirring speeches calling for action against “the liberal scum”, “the piss weak cops” and the “fucking towelheads”?

Even if the vile Patriot Blue characters are delivered stone cold, crime-doesn’t-pay justice in the end, it seems unlikely extremists will watch the show and be frightened into a life of the straight and narrow. Perhaps they are more likely to draw inspiration from it – even (maybe especially) from characters who are condemned.

In an episode of The Movie Show broadcast in 1992, the critic David Stratton famously refused to give Romper Stomper a star rating (although he did review/discuss it with co-host Margaret Pomeranz). Stratton said: “In these volatile times, with racism on the march again all over the world, this is a dangerous film.”

History undoubtedly provides flashpoints when it comes to phenomena such as racism. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that the world would never be ready – and the time never right – for any kind of Romper Stomper production. Do we condemn it sight unseen, or accept – grudgingly perhaps – the need for art to be challenging and provocative?

It would be no big deal if the series were poorly made; something to happily pass off as clumsy or inauthentic. Like the original film (with the exception of its poorly written ending, which I discussed in this comment piece) the show is very skillfully constructed. When the complete season of Stan’s controversial series premieres on New Years Day, I will watch the remaining episodes with interest – and no small measure of unease.

• Luke Buckmaster is Guardian Australia’s film reviewer


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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