Before Bronson came Chopper. Notorious criminals and the fame they garner for themselves as being beyond the level of usually hardened cell fodder is a fascinating avenue that has grown commercial through true crime and true fascination. No wonder the life of Bronson was turned into a Tom Hardy-led biopic. No wonder the life of Chopper was turned into a self-titled biopic helmed by director Andrew Dominik and starring Eric Bana as the caricature presentation of a tough, Australian criminal. Is there any difference between the tough-as-nails brutality found here and the more sophisticated mobsters of the Martin Scorsese-fuelled 1990s? Not too much. What separates them is the style of crime and the class in doing it.
Bana makes no hesitations in getting into the real dirt and muck of Chopper. Narrative liberties are taken, the film warns as its first order of business. It is probably for the best to do so, because if Chopper had not taken those “narrative liberties” then the disgust of alleged crimes and the raising of Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read would be less coherent and structured. There is something rather thrilling about that, as Dominik uses that as an excuse to mark out his exceptional abilities in a debut feature that relies on the upholding of prison life and the fascination that comes with it. Chopper is presented as a mouthy, tough bloke who goads others into embarking on attacks against him. What he gets from that is fascinating, and with such great dialogue delivered by Bana and company, it is easy to feel lost and endangered by the prison system.
It is exciting, too. Chopper has all the necessary supporting character structures in place to provide Bana with a good foundation to leap from. There is a horrific psychosis bleeding into Chopper that Bana embodies extremely well. Eventually, the gruesome violence and reliance on blood and gore turn out some solid lines of dialogue and some effective moments for Dominik to open up the eponymous character and the biting tone he has for those around him. Bana’s performance is that of a near-sociopath, if not a complete one. Incredible and stated firmly as a purely devoid criminal without reason or pause for thought, yet somehow a character audiences can connect to not through a love or hate for him, but an interest in his actions and the thought process behind them.
That was the interest that took hold of audiences with Bronson over a decade later. Why criminals commit their crimes, what attracts them to life on the inside and how they do it are of just as much importance to the technical flourishes that mark out the story. The how, why and what between Chopper and Bronson is where the similarities end, though. On the inside are two very different prisoners that mark very similar, ghoulish interests for the outside world. Chopper is a tad more plain-sailing than the Nicolas Winding Refn work on Bronson, but audiences who like one will certainly enjoy the other. They are similar in their representations of the jailbird’s life, although Chopper has more of a fixation on the act of violence inside, rather than the impact of it on the person outside.