Tom Hardy is the new hot shit, right? He was the sole source of humor in Inception, he was perfectly repressed in Warrior and he will, I assume, be expertly covert in the upcoming Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And of course, Bane.
When people start talking about Hardy, I always steer them to the film that made him a breakout star, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson. I’ll talk about Bronson for a little while, about its stylized violence and its charismatic yet clinically insane titular character; and after a while, I realize that I should’ve been talking about a similar, but far better, film the whole time.
On paper, Chopper and Bronson are the exact same movie, made eight years apart. Both Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read and Michael Peterson (a.k.a Charles Bronson) were real-life criminals who spent more time in prison than out. Both were fiercely charming, sadistically violent, lethally street smart, and very much insane.
But while Rehn is more focused on showing how amusingly batshit crazy his Bronson is, Andrew Dominik added another level to his Chopper. He gave his man a soul.
I'm just a bloody normal bloke. A normal bloke who likes a bit of torture.
Released briefly in New York and L.A. in mid 2001, before fading to single copy-only purgatory on a hidden shelf at your local Blockbuster, Chopper was (and still is) a hidden phenomenon waiting to be discovered.
When we meet Chopper (played with ferocious excellence by then nobody Eric Bana), he is hatching a half ass plan to kill all of his enemies (i.e. pretty much everyone) in the Australian prison he occupies. If it sounds absurd, that’s because it is. Dominik and Bana know this, and the way they handle the (mostly) true material is breathtaking.
Everything Chopper says and does, you see, is done with wild charisma. Whether he’s thrusting a shank into a prisoner’s face a dozen times, or being stabbed repeatedly by his cell mate, or chopping his own ears off, or firing a gun in a crowded nightclub; it’s all done with a sense of deranged joy. The actions themselves aren’t necessarily funny (unless you have a sick sense of humor – ding ding), but the fallout is nothing short of hilarious.
|Bana as Chopper/Chopper as Chopper|
Eric Bana, if I haven’t been clear, is revelatory in the lead role. Packing on a good 30 pounds and slathered in hundreds of tattoos, Bana transforms himself into Chopper. It’s the type of performance that, quite frankly, makes award competitions irrelevant. Bana may have not been nominated for anything, but he got the attention of Ridley Scott, who cast him in Black Hawk Down, which led to The Hulk, which led to Munich, and so on.
And despite the fact that Bana steals the show, Chopper is far from a one trick pony. Because the film was made for next to nothing, its composition is horrible. It is grainy and dark with a fluctuating soundtrack. All of this, however, lends itself perfectly to the film. The look of the film is raw, but so is the material. If you saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, then you know Andrew Dominik knows his shit. The raw talent of he and his Chopper cast and crew is wildly compelling.
Inside, I'm somebody nobody wants to fuck with, do you understand? I am Charlie Bronson, I am Britain's most violent prisoner.
Bronson is similar in story in that it tells the tale of a violent prisoner who took more pleasure in hurting others than he probably did from anything else. The real Michael Peterson (who later took on the fight name, Charles Bronson) was sentenced to seven years in prison for robbery, but has only spent a handful of days out of jail since being incarcerated.
As Tom Hardy informs us in the film, Bronson loved being an inside man. He loved being able to hone his fighting skills on the guards that tried to restore order. Kidnapping guards, hurting himself, refusing to eat; no gimmick was spared to make way for a little bit of beating.
I first saw Bronson at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and remember being utterly enthralled. You had this jacked up dude beating the shit out of anything within sight, usually cut in slow motion to electronica music. It was coolest prison movie I’d seen since, well, Chopper.
|Hardy as Bronson/Bronson as Bronson|
Watching it now, having seen Refn’s far superior Drive, I’m a little less impressed. A lot less impressed, actually.
Its sense of humor is still intact, and Hardy is still demonically possessed in all the best ways, but there’s really nothing to the film. There’s fighting and blood and punching and knives and bare asses and talking and fighting and blood and end credits. The film is 92 minutes but its repetitiveness makes it feel double that. If you’re a fan of Drive, you’ll enjoy seeing the makings of Refn’s genius. Otherwise, Bronson is a film that, aside from its violence, is as weightless as air.
Here's a bloke, sitting in a cell, who can't spell, and he's written a best-seller. It's sold two hundred and fifty thousand copies. And it's still selling. And he's writing another one. And I can't even spell. I'm semi-bloody-illiterate.
Which brings me to my final point. Bronson is all style, no substance, whereas Chopper is high style, higher substance. You may laugh with your friends about all the crazy shit Chopper does, but when you stop and actually think about it, you’ll find yourself staring off at a blank wall, alone with your thoughts, much like the man himself. Chopper: A, Bronson: B-