Michael Peterson, aka Charlie Bronson, is fondly known as “the most violent prisoner in Britain. In 1974, Bronson (who acquired his pseudonym during a brief stint in London’s underground bare-knuckle boxing scene) was arrested for armed robbery (he got away with only 26 pounds) and sentenced to seven years in prison. Thirty six years later, he’s still there. With the exception of a 69-day release in 1988, Bronson has continuously terrorized the British prison system, fighting guards, seizing hostages and single-handedly causing millions of dollars in damage. Because of a laundry list of repeated offenses including wounding, criminal damage, threatening to kill, blackmail and grievous bodily harm, Bronson’s sentence has been extended to life.
It’s easy enough to see why Danish cult director Nicolas Winding Refn would be intrigued by Bronson’s story. What on earth would ever possess a man to create such havoc? Bronson has made various demands during his hostage-taking incidents, but there has been no rhyme nor reason to them whatsoever. He seems to lack any human motivation – twice he is asked “what do you want?” by a prison warden, and both times he is flummoxed to come up with an answer. He is simply a force of nature, causing destruction because that is what he is meant to do.
Refn wisely avoids any of the traditional, easy explanations for Bronson’s behavior. As Bronson himself states, “there was nothing wonky about my upbringing,” and indeed there is no childhood trauma offered up as a reason for Bronson’s violent tendencies, even if there is foreshadowing. This is not your traditional biopic, offering up meaning or lessons from its subject’s life. Instead, Refn’s film treats Bronson like an exhibit in the natural history museum, a specimen for the viewer to witness, marvel at, and then thank God that it’s locked up (spelled out explicitly in the film’s final shot, as a bloodied Bronson gurgles triumphantly in his tiny cell like some proud, caged beast in a zoo).
The film plays out in a suitably twisted, surrealist fashion. Bronson himself narrates his own life, offering up not just facts but running commentary on prison life, his captors, his desires to “make a name for himself.” Sometimes these thoughts come in voice-over. Sometimes they come as Bronson sits in front of a black background, the emptiness around him emphasizing his jerky, enigmatic facial tics. And, most strangely of all, sometimes they come as Bronson appears as some sort of music hall performer, entertaining an ever-appreciative audience. Refn’s frenetic, illogical pace as he switches back and forth between these set pieces fits his enthusiastically chaotic subject.
Of course, watching Bronson’s animalistic, violent antics wears a little thin when you’re offered little substance in return: it’s like watching A Clockwork Orange if Kubrick’s classic was stripped of all social and political commentary. But, as an exercise in style, the film is effective enough. Refn borrows Kubrick’s device of using soaring classical arias as a greased-up Bronson tears through a squad of guards, elevating Bronson’s expertly shot and choreographed outbursts into an art form.
Tom Hardy’s demented performance is also worthy of comparison to Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge. With shaved head and memorable ‘stache, Hardy provides exactly what Refn is looking to deliver: a spectacle. The actor clearly revels in Bronson’s insane (if that really is the right word) energy; the best scene in the movie features Bronson in the music hall, half of his face painted so that he can simulate both sides of his conversation with a psychiatrist. Does he evoke sympathy for his character, make you care? That’s debatable, but he certainly makes Bronson a sight to behold.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars