Perfect Double Bill: Bronson (2008) and Chopper (2000)

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Bronson and Chopper marked a high point in the respective careers of Tom Hardy and Eric Bana. Both are essentially biopics about two real-life criminals who spent a major part of their lives inside prisons. They served as showcases for the enormous talents of these two actors. Both characters are funny, charming, unpredictable and extremely violent. And both have written books about their life experiences. Chopper chronicles the life of the Australian Mark Brandon Read who went by the nickname “Chopper” and Bronson of British-born Michael Peterson, who later adopted the name of actor Charles Bronson. Both desired to be famous and always saw themselves as some sort of superstars.

1. Bronson (2008)

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It’s evident from the films of Nicholas Winding Refn that he has a curious obsession with violence. Not very surprising considering the fact that he himself was kicked out of film school for demonstrating a small episode of apparent violent behavior – throwing a table into a wall. So it’s only natural that he chose to make the subject of his sixth film a man who has been dubbed by the press as “U.K’s most violent prisoner”.The only difference between Refn and the titular character is that Refn seems to despise institutions whereas Bronson seems to enjoy being trapped inside one. Darkly funny, hysterical and violent, it’s one of the best films about self-destruction ever made.

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Michael Petersen aka Charles Bronson admits that he always wanted to be famous and that he knew he was made for better things. He didn’t think he was good at anything and had no idea what his real calling was. So he robbed a post office and got himself arrested. What he stole was a measly 27 pounds. He was supposed to serve a sentence of 7 years but gradually got stretched to a life sentence as a result of his extremely violent behavior with fellow inmates and prison staff. He constantly gets an urge to get into a fight, always at the slightest provocation. This is a man trapped in the prison of his own mind and whenever he is let out, he somehow finds his way back in. The look of the whole film is in fact, representative of a hellish prison.

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The narrative style Refn adopted here is kind of like his variation on “Breaking the fourth wall”. Bronson’s thoughts and experiences are recounted in the form of a vaudevillian mono-act sequence taking place in his mind in front of an imaginary audience. These are some of best parts of the film and appear sporadically throughout. The “nurse and prisoner” routine he did had me transfixed to the screen. It is Hardy at his most unrestrained and is such an amazing scene. There are shots that seem straight out of a comic book or graphic novel. The 80s style electronic score (as he does in most of his films) that accompanies certain sequences manage to soften the tone a little. Refn knows how to pick the right music for his films. There are tracks from The Walker Brothers, Glass Candy and The Pet Shop Boys. He has also infused the narration with some dark humor without which the film would’ve been another conventional, drab biopic.

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By casting Tom Hardy, Refn has managed to craft a film that is oddly entertaining. Hardy is the one of the greatest actors working in cinema today and Refn has taken full advantage of his raw physicality and staggering confidence. He has the ability to take a character and make it real by adding multiple dimensions. I don’t think the film would’ve been that compelling if it were someone else playing the role. He is nearly unrecognizable here. The sheer ferocity of his performance is so overwhelming that at times, I used to wonder if he is a better actor than Pacino and De Niro. Apparently, the real Michael Petersen was initially apprehensive of Hardy playing him but later became so impressed with him that he shaved off his mustache and gave it to Hardy in the hope that the make-up artist would stitch it onto his face. He even called him Britain’s greatest actor.

2. Chopper (2000)

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Watching Andrew Dominik’s Chopper for the second time, I was struck by how similar it is to Bronson. Just like Refn, Dominik is another director who has a fascination with violent and mentally unstable characters. He made an impressive debut with the biopic of the notorious Australian criminal Mark Brandon Read. Mark is something of a celebrity and a household name in Australia. The film is based on his book, Chopper: From the Inside. I think it is Dominik’s best film.

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Chopper, just like Bronson is not an easy person to deal with. He can become extremely violent when irritated. In the very beginning of the film, we see him stab a fellow inmate repeatedly because he did not like the fact that he was lording over his division. Shortly after, he feels remorse and tries to apologize for it.  It’s both disquieting and amusing. And there is another scene where he viciously punches his girlfriend because he suspected her of having an affair with one of his gangster pals. This is a guy who relentlessly pursued fame in every nook and corner and jumped at opportunity he can to attain it. The most absurd thing he did was take credit for the crimes he did not commit. It’s ridiculous! He also had a talent for making up stories and sometimes exaggerating the already existing ones.

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While Refn left the nature of Bronson ambiguous, Dominik gave us a vague idea. He boasted about actually having killed few people but he had never been convicted of any. And Bronson never has killed anyone (even though he intended to) and is still inside prison. And another thing that both of them share is that they both have demonstrated at least a semblance of humanity. Dominik too has used some interesting visual techniques to narrate his story. The exaggerated stories told by Mark has a bit of fantastical, cinematic quality to them what with the use of slow motion and freeze frames (ala Scorsese). Just like Bronson, this film too evokes both shock and laughter.

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I used to think that Eric Bana was a terrible actor (Ang Lee’s Hulk was mainly responsible) until I saw this. Chopper sees Eric Bana unleashing his full potential. It proved that he too can demonstrate an acting ability that rivals that of the greats if provided with the right material. In one scene the cops tell him that they’ve heard a story of him shooting a gangster and then driving him to the hospital. Naturally, the refuted by him and he asks them, “Why would I shoot a man and then take him to the hospital? It defeats the purpose of having shot him in the first place.” It’s hilarious! Bana’s transformation is incredible. It evokes Robert De Niro’s in Raging Bull. He is as unrecognizable as Hardy is in Bronson.

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