2000 - R - 94 Mins.
|Director: Andrew Dominik|
|Producer: Michele Bennett|
|Written By: Andrew Dominik|
|Starring: Eric Bana, Simon Lyndon, David Field, Daniel Wyllie
|Review by: David Rolston
What is it about Australian actors that so fascinates us? Ever since people magazine declared Mel Gibson the world’s sexiest man, and Paul Hogan made millions wearing a leather vest, boots and floppy hat in his “Crocodile Dundee” series, it seems Hollywood casting directors can’t get enough of the gents down under. We have Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, two relatively unknown Australian actors until L.A. Confidential plucked them from seeming obscurity for lead roles in Curtis Hanson’s film about 1950’s Los Angeles. Hugo Weaving menaced Keanu Reeves through a whole series of Matrix films, and parlayed that into a major role in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Heath Ledger, who had barely registered as a teen heartthrob in “Ten Things I hate about you”, managed to secure the plum role of Mel Gibson’s son in “The Patriot” catapulting him in short order to leading man status. And Hugh Jackman who grabbed a hold of his lucky break with both claws and became a superstar in the process won the marquee role of Wolverine in “X-Men” as a last minute replacement for Welshman Dougray Scott when Scott became unavailable because Mission Impossible: II had gone over schedule.
Perhaps it’s the allure of the foreign that explains this. Do we imagine Australia as the last frontier? A land with people not unlike our Euro American vision of ourselves, both our countries born as English colonies, but in the case of Australia, with a land that seems just a little rougher, a little wilder, and a bit more untamed than the familiar territory to be found inside our continental borders. Is it that there’s just the hint of the outlaw that remains firmly ingrained in the Australian mythos? Or is it that these actors give performances made just a little bit more impressive when they are delivered with American accents so flawless we have to be reminded that these guys don’t carry US Passports.
I’d submit that there is a far simpler explanation, which is that in nearly every case, these men had already delivered star making performances in little seen often independent films, produced in Australia, Films that are just as good if not better than the best Hollywood has to offer. These performances, unheralded outside their country of origin, get passed around Hollywood from Agent to Producer to Casting Agent to Director. Hollywood knows talent when it sees it, and the Hollywood machine is unmatched in its ability to attract and snare the world’s most talented actors and actresses with the promise of blockbuster roles, untold riches and international stardom.
In the case of Russell Crowe it was his role in “Romper Stomper” as the charismatic leader of a Nazi skinhead gang in Melbourne that brought him attention. For Guy Pearce it was the part of a Transvestite in the cult hit “The adventures of Priscilla Queen of the desert”, which also featured Weaving, although Weaving got far more attention playing a blind man in an eccentric low budget film called Trust, co starring none other than Crowe. For Ledger, his breakout role was playing the part of a young blue collar teenager, who unwisely accepts a courier job for a local Australian crime boss in “Two Hands”. And long before Mel Gibson became a household name, he had delivered the title role of “Mad Max” an Australian cop turned vengeful executioner who chases motor cycle riding thugs at high speeds down barren Australian highways.
And so we come at last to the Australian film that made Eric Bana a hot Hollywood commodity virtually overnight. Bana was electrifying as a special forces commando amidst a cast of accomplished veteran actors in Ridley Scotts’ Oscar nominated Black Hawk Down, and followed that up with his performance as Dr. Bruce Banner in Ang Lee’s big budget disappointment “The Hulk”. While “The Hulk” may not have made Bana into the star Hollywood thinks he should be, this seems only to be a bump in the road, since Bana will next be seen starring across from Brad Pitt as the Trojan army’s most heroic warrior Hector, in Wolfgang Peterson’s eagerly anticipated epic retelling of “The Iliad” entitled “Troy.”
The multi-talented Bana had already established a name for himself in his homeland as writer and performer on a number of TV series, including his own skit based variety show, “The Eric Bana Show.” when the Australian film “Chopper” was released in the year 2000. For Bana, who was previously only known for his comedic work, “Chopper” turned out to be an eye opening departure. Bana delivers a bravura larger than life performance as Mark Brandon 'Chopper' Read, an infamous Melbourne criminal whose autobiography “Chopper: Life on the inside” became a best seller in his homeland and made Read an unlikely Australian folk hero in the process.
“Chopper” tells Read’s story in a disjointed series of vignettes. The main problem with the film is the lack of any kind of sustained plot line or dramatic story arc. For example, in order to escape the general prison population where he believes he will be killed, Chopper commissions the lopping off of major portions of his own ears, a colorful well publicized fact that seems to be included in the film, only because it was probably expected by the fans of Read’s autobiography, the pre-existing audience for whom ostensibly ”Chopper” was made. Unfortunately, this act of desperate self mutilation is not nearly explained by the confusing sequence that leads up to it. That Read would do something like this to himself says something about the man, but if you’re expecting the film to offer any further insight, you won’t find it within the plot line of “Chopper”.
Read spent 23 years in Prison for various crimes, and has claimed to have murdered and tortured numerous other petty criminals and drug dealers. Perhaps there’s just too much story, and too much ambiguity in Read’s life to establish anything resembling a series of dramatic acts, but that does not mean that “Chopper” does not make for a fascinating and at times riveting character study. Bana’s performance anchors and transforms what otherwise might have been a pointlessly violent cartoon. As the film opens we find Read enjoying the broadcast of an interview he has given to an Australian news program, and using this device, it quickly shifts to his recollections of days gone by, where Read has established himself as the leader of a reluctant gang of fellow criminals embroiled in a series of prison skirmishes. Bana portrays Read as a fast talking bruiser, his imposing chiseled physique covered with gang tattoos. While “Chopper” has its fair share of narrative problems, what distinguishes it from other dramas that depict life behind bars, is in setting a measured introspective tone, using monochromatic coloring, which works to prevent the film from becoming complicit in sensationalizing and glorifying the undeniable violence it portrays. Unlike so many other films which portray the horrors of Prison life, Chopper doesn’t wallow in the details of how “shivs” are fashioned or procured, nor does it pander to the voyeuristic bloodlust of an audience eager to see bad things happen to these evil men.
Honed to a brutal edge by years behind bars, Bana’s Read can barely distinguish between friend and foe. In the sequence which opens the film, Read viciously attacks a crime boss with a knife, puncturing his neck repeatedly. Moments later we see the fury dissipate and turn to child like remorse, as Read watches his wounded victim crawling across the floor in a pool of his own blood. Nearly in tears, Read encourages the man to hold on until medical attention arrives, and attempts to give him a cigarette. In a strategy that pays off in the long run, the camera lingers on Bana’s expressive face as he wrestles with his demons.
The film follows Read’s brief period of liberty as he quickly reestablishes his criminal career by extorting money from other criminals. Many scenes in Chopper are darkly comic, no more painfully so, than in the exploration of his personal relationships; first with his father, then with an ex-girlfriend turned prostitute, and finally with his “best mate” who has since turned against him. Bana’s ‘tour de force’ delivery of Read’s often twisted thought process provides a window into the man’s all too human frailty. “Chopper” succeeds in transcending its sordid material with a small scale vision of what it has discerned to be the most revealing moments in an extremely conflicted existence. “Chopper” is sharply focused on these moments: the ruthless execution of a nefarious plan is followed by unexpected indecision and empathy; professions of love are followed by sudden explosions of rage. Having shaken hands and toasted bygone animosities with former foes moments before, we watch Bana simmer, boil and reignite the hostility on the basis of slights and evidence of skullduggery indiscernible to anyone but Read himself.
Bana’s Read has all the emotional stability of an abused dog, and yet far more complex than he appears on the surface, with an inventive suspicious mind, and a quick wit. We have seen this type of person portrayed many times before: the loquacious psychopath who manages to talk himself into the den of his enemies, disarming them with non stop banter just before he explodes with violent predictability. Time and again we think that these people should certainly have known better, but to Bana’s credit he manages to squeeze just enough humanity into the cracks of the man, to keep us interested in seeing what he might do next. Rarely does voice-over narrative not come across as an artificial distraction, but in the case of “Chopper” it succeeds to the degree you barely notice it’s there, providing much needed ground work and exposition, or adding additional layers of enigma by allowing Read to comment on the events of his own life in ways that sometimes contradict the obvious interpretation of the events portrayed. Read is an unapologetic liar, thief and murderer, and “Chopper” makes it clear that it’s not possible to separate the fact from the fiction with a man like Read. His actions are often outrageous and brutal and yet, we can’t help but smile when he gets away with his manipulation of the police and the other criminals who seem eager to be rid of Mark Read and his unpredictable penchant for shaking up the order of things. The combination of autobiographical material, and Bana’s pitch perfect delivery adds a conversational and confessional tone to the film which helps up the emotional ante. Bana as Read, is volatile, forlorn and wounded, garrulous, shrewd, outrageous and entertaining, and I’m hard pressed to think of any film that does a better job of presenting the life of a man with such ambiguous complexity.
Giving one of the great cinematic performances of the last few years, from the emotional demands to the physical ones (Bana piles on weight to portray the aging Read) his portrayal helps “Chopper” make its simple but undeniably powerful statement. “Chopper” ends as it begins, with Read behind bars, elevated to jailhouse celebrity by a Television and Print Media business all too happy to turn a profit feeding society’s hunger for tales of the inhuman fringe dwellers who transgress, live and often die in the shadowy criminal world that exists under our noses, yet thankfully just beyond the thin blue line. We sleep well at night knowing these animals are where they belong, safely behind bars, allowed by the penal system to rape and kill each other without concern for what they will have become by the time they are released back into society. What “Chopper” manages to show us, is that if you are brave enough to look through the eyes of a man like Mark “Chopper” Read, you will find that he is not all that different from the rest of us, and therein lies the tragedy.