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Friday, February 12, 2010
  DVD Review: Bronson

I’ll get two things out of the way right off the bat: (1) Bronson has nothing to do with the late screen icon Charles Bronson; (2) Bronson is a flat-out incredible movie. It’s certainly not to everyo
ne’s taste, but for its entire running time I was totally buying what director/co-writer Nicolas Winding Refn and star Tom Hardy were selling. Bronson is a biopic about Michael Peterson, a man who proudly claims to be Britain’s most violent prisoner. He was arrested in 1974 for robbery, and has spent most of the time since then in prison, and most of that time’s been spent in solitary. (According to the film, he adopted the “fighting name” Charles Bronson during a brief period on the outside when he took up underground bare-knuckle fighting to get his violence fix.)

The centerpiece of Bronson is Tom Hardy. His performance makes me want to drag out clichés like “electrifying” and “riveting,” because he is all of those things. This is one of the most jaw-dropping performances I’ve seen in a long time; the entire film rests on Hardy’s broad shoulders – he’s in every scene – and he carries it with the aplomb of a genuine star. (He’s apparently been tapped to take over for Mel Gibson in George Miller’s long-planned fourth Mad Max movie, and after watching Bronson I can tell you that the iconic character is in excellent hands.) Bronson is, without a doubt, a sociopath, and Hardy makes him simultaneously charming, hilarious and terrifying. He spends a chunks of the movie addressing the camera directly in his prison garb, or delivering monologues while clad in a tuxedo to what appears to be a high-class theater audience (Refn’s primary theme for his biopic has to do with Bronson as an artist/performer – more on that later), and it’s in these scenes that Hardy really draws the audience in with his – and Bronson’s – charisma. I know nothing of the real Charles Bronson, but Hardy’s work in the monologue sequences really helped me understand how this strange, violent man whose “calling” is that he fights cops and prison guards by the handful and has spent more than three decades in prison has become an underground cult hero in Britain.

The other star of the movie is Refn. The Danish director made a splash with cult audiences on these shores with his acclaimed trio of crime films known as the Pusher Trilogy (1996, 2004, 2005). I haven’t seen t
hem myself – they’ve been on my mental list of Movies I Really Need to Get Around to Seeing Someday since I heard about them – and after watching Bronson, I’ve definitely got to check them out now. Refn is an amazingly talented filmmaker, and as stylized as Bronson is, it never felt showy for the sake of being showy.

The music in Bronson was one of my favorite things about the movie, and it’s split about 50/50 between classical music and synth-heavy 1980s pop (which is when much of the film takes place, or at least I think so – Refn makes a point of leaving the chronology vague), and the use of The Pet Shop Boys’ ‘It’s A Sin’ is particularly wonderful. Refn uses the music primarily during the fight scenes, and both the grand, sweeping classical music and the ‘80s synth-pop provide wonderful juxtapositions to the brutal violence onscreen.

In Refn’s film, Bronson’s central motivation is to be famous (the film opens with Hardy telling the camera “My name’s Charles Bronson. And all my life I’ve wanted to be famous.”), and it’s a really fascinating premise. The idea is that Michael Peterson created this persona of Charlie Bronson, and his primary concern through much of the film is his legacy and fame (or, more appropriately, infamy). When he’s first sent to jail as a young man, he relishes the opportunity to, as he puts it, “sharpen my tools, hone my skills.” Bronson is an exploration of celebrity and our cultural obsession with fame, seen through the eyes of a violent man who decided to become “famous” by fighting cops and prison guards. Bronson’s entire life is a performance, and his masterpiece (in the film at least) is a “rooftop protest” (seemed more like a full-on riot to me) at Broadmoor Hospital in 1983 that lasted 47 hours.

Bronson, however, probably isn’t for everyone. Refn doesn’t flinch from violent or disturbing imagery, and I don’t remember the last time I saw a movie with this much male nudity. But Bronson is raw, violent and hilarious, easily the best movie I’ve seen about a sociopath since Taxi Driver. There’s a quote on the cover that co0mpares Bronson to A Clockwork Orange, and as much as it tears me up inside to piggyback on another critic’s observation, that’s as apt a comparison as I can think of. Bronson is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, and comes with my highest recommendation.



The Bronson DVD has a great selection of bonus materials. There’s a nice making-of mini-documentary with interviews with the cast and crew, as well as individual interview featurettes with co-writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn and Tom Hardy. (Interestingly, Refn had never heard of Charles Bronson before he got the script, while Hardy’s been “
obsessed” with him for years, a detail I found fascinating). There’s also a short featurette on the training regimen Hardy used to physically transform himself into Bronson, which, when you see how Hardy normally looks, makes his performance even more impressive.

The oddest – and also the most interesting – extra is something called the Charles Bronson Monologues, actual audio recordings from the man himself done in 2009. Hardy really got to know Bronson to prepare for the role, and felt he had a duty to the man. In the message, Bronson actually thanks the cast and crew of the film for telling his story, praising Hardy in particular (“No one else on this planet could have played me better than Tom Hardy.”). Just listening to him talking, it’s easy to see how this guy has crafted such a cult of personality around himself. Overall, this is a really great assortment of extras for an excellent film, perfectly balancing behind-the-scenes details with real-life information. If only DVDs for all biopics were this good.

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