Every Question I Had About 'Barb Wire' While Watching 'Pam & Tommy'

I'm sorry, literally what is this 1996 Pamela Anderson action movie?

lily james as pamela anderson
Me, wondering what 'Barb Wire' is | Erin Simkin/Hulu
Me, wondering what 'Barb Wire' is | Erin Simkin/Hulu

Hulu's Pam & Tommy is like a '90s nostalgia time capsule. That's by default, of course, as the show created by Robert Siegel chronicles the 1995 theft of Pamela Anderson and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee's sex tape, and the scandal and trauma that followed. But its pop culture ephemera is what gives the series an element of fun (as it's ultimately about one of the many instances that the media and society wronged and misjudged a woman in the spotlight). The series shows the couple played by Lily James and Sebastian Stan throwing back shots for the first time to the Eurodance classic "Be My Lover," there's cameos of Third Eye Blind and Jay Leno that play out like a '90s who's-who, and any mention of "the world wide web" is delivered in a way that invites laughter.

While I would call myself a pop culture obsessive, most of the events in Pam & Tommy escaped my pop culture literacy. I was born in 1996 after all, which is the focus of much of the series, and I suppose growing up in the aughts, I was already inundated with enough tabloid scandals. I didn't need to look to the past for more. That being said, a lot of Pam & Tommy has been new and fascinating to me—but there's one part in particular that I can't stop thinking about. Nothing has confused me and sent me down more Wikipedia rabbit holes than anything in the series like Barb Wire has. With every mention of the movie that Anderson (James) was trying to promote in '96 when the sex tape was becoming more infamous, with every publicity team meeting she has or press tour she goes on, I find myself rattled by its sheer existence and how it has somehow disappeared into mid-'90s oblivion along with Anderson's (honestly incredible) voluminous up-do. Below, I ry to work through every question I have about Barb Wire. 

Mozhan Navabi in pam and tommy, gail pam and tommy
Just look at all those 'Barb Wire' posters! | Kelsey McNeal/Hulu

Okay, but literally what is the Pamela Anderson movie Barb Wire?

Episode 3, "Jane Fonda," is when I, a youth, learned that Barb Wire is a real movie. When Pam goes to meet with her publicist Gail (Mozhan Marnò) for the first time, she's shown the promotional material for it and told it's "the studio's number one priority for spring." I'm sorry, what? How could I have never heard of a big-budget action movie that was apparently so big that Pam's publicist was willing to live and breathe "24/7 Barb Wire?" I was especially curious because, I—again, a youth—have only ever associated Anderson with Baywatch.

Well, it's possible that the series editorialized the blockbuster potential that Barb Wire had, but—based on my constant Googling of it whenever it's mentioned on Pam & Tommy—I think it never found a place in the action movie zeitgeist because it's just… not Good, not even good bad movie good. Still I wonder, though, what the hell is this movie?! You see, the trailer and clips available online are mainly just of Anderson shooting at various men or riding a motorcycle in head-to-toe leather, a la 2022 Julia Fox. What I have deduced, though, is that Pam is the titular Barb Wire, a comic-book-originated character who is a part-time-nightclub-owner-part-time-bounty-hunter in a second civil war-ridden America. That all (sort of) makes sense. What confuses me is the "plot," more or less, and I fear that even if I watched the movie in its entirety, I wouldn't be able to tell you what happens. What I am aware of is that there's some doctor with knowledge of a bioweapon and Barb's ex lover, a freedom fighter named Axel Hood, reemerges and asks for her help in crossing the border to escape the war.

Wait, isn't that just like Casablanca?

You're telling me that Barb Wire is a Casablanca remake? Like, that is the plot of Casablanca—which leads me to wonder if Barb Wire realized it was a Casablanca remake? And did it market itself that way? That's just a recipe for disaster: trying to touch one of the most classic movies of all time, even ever so slightly with added overt sex appeal. Would things have boded differently for Barb Wire had it just been a tad more original? I'm going to guess abso-freaking-lutely. Like, there may not be any lines like, "Here's looking at you, kid," in Barb Wire, but it does have her signature catchphrase, "Don't call me babe"—which is definitely a Hot Girl catchphrase. Maybe Barb Wire just needed a little bit more of its own thigh-high-boots-wearing legs to walk on.

pamela anderson in barb wire
Pamela Anderson in 'Barb Wire' | Gramercy Pictures

Does everyone wear leather in the Barb Wire universe?

Because I mean, that would be cool and hot. I think Barb might be the only leather daddy in the film, but maybe it should've gone for a singular leather look sweeping the second civil war-ridden nation. It's supposed to be set in 2017, so it would've been ahead of its time, as that's all very in right now!

Was Barb Wire at all good?

I think… no? Apparently, some of the movie's wonkiness can be attributed to changes in directors during production, and it sounds like a lot of the dialogue is as chaotic as Barb's lawless city of Steel Harbor. To Anderson's credit, though, she did do most of her own stunts, making her the one element that gave the movie any sense of badassery. Upon its release, she told the LA Times, "Try getting Stallone or Schwarzenegger to do all their own stunts in a 17-inch corset and stiletto heels," and she's right and she should say it.

Lily James in pam and tommy episode 5
Erin Simkin/Hulu

But why exactly did Barb Wire flop?

Well, it sounds like the fact that the movie wasn't great was part of it, but this seems like a movie that should have a Barbarella-esque embrace, or at least a cult fandom. In Pam & Tommy, Pamela even speaks to how much Jane Fonda's career as someone who manages to juggle the titles of sex symbol, serious actress, entrepreneur, and activist speak to her. Like, this should have been a star vehicle for her—or, the movie's lackluster reception aside, it should have at least been the action movie to get her into more blockbuster auditions.

As Pam & Tommy reveals, though, it was less about the quality of the movie than it was the public's overwhelming obsession with the sex tape and its scrutiny over her image. Suddenly, Glamour was canceling magazine profiles and she no longer even had a shot of being the Austin Powers leading lady. In the show's final episodes, it's revealed that it was largely because people saw her as a punchline that Barb Wire flopped. If she wasn't being taken seriously as a Baywatch star, now she wasn't going to be taken seriously as an actor at all.

While I still can't quite wrap my head around Barb Wire, I also can't help but wonder what it would have been like if it was just a little better and the blockbuster success that stiletto-boot-wearing, motorcycle-riding Pamela Anderson deserved. It could have been a hot girl classic. 

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Sadie Bell is the entertainment associate editor at Thrillist. She's on Twitter and Instagram.