May 2024

Bronson (2008)

 bronson1DIRECTOR: Nicolas Winding Refn

CAST: Tom Hardy


Bronson is a prime example of a film that’s longer on style than substance.  As envisioned by Nicolas Winding Refn, Bronson is not a straightforward biopic of Michael Peterson, who in his alter ego of “Charlie Bronson” (not to be confused with the actor) became Britain’s most infamous prisoner and has spent all but 69 days from 1974 until the present day behind bars and often in solitary confinement.  Rather, Refn has crafted a stylized and semi-fictionalized “greatest hits” montage of Bronson’s escapades.  Essentially a string of loosely-connected vignettes, Bronson‘s kinetic, visceral approach leaves little chance of boredom but also little depth, and is less a straight narrative than a fragmented, rambling trip through a deranged mind.  Bronson works best as a vehicle to showcase its star Tom Hardy; take away Hardy, and there’s not much left over, and ultimately, a forceful lead performance in and of itself is not enough to make a strong film.

Born in Luton, England in 1952, Michael Peterson (played with gung-ho exuberance by Tom Hardy) was what could be called a “bad seed”.  Raised in a conventional middle-class family, Peterson was a violent juvenile delinquent, and his attempts at holding down a job and maintaining a family barely made it into his early 20s before, for no apparent reason beyond his lifelong craving for notoriety, he held up a store with a sawed-off shotgun and was sentenced to seven years in prison.  Those seven years quickly stretched out indefinitely, as Peterson continually lengthened his sentence with assaults on prisoners and guards, hostage-taking, and once even orchestrating a large-scale revolt (oddly, the film glosses over the last incident).  Peterson’s hell-raising backfires when he’s moved into an insane asylum which he despises, and eventually gives the British government such a headache in continual unrest and mounting costs in damages that they declare him sane to get rid of him (or so the self-aggrandizing Peterson claims).  In 1988, Peterson briefly becomes a free man, and spends 69 days finding work as a bare-knuckle boxer in under-the-table matches against gypsies and even dogs under management of an old prison acquaintance (Matt King), who gives him his fighting moniker Charlie Bronson, and tries to have a conventional relationship with a girlfriend (Juliet Oldfield), but the incorrigible Bronson soon winds up back behind bars.  After returning to prison, he seems for a time to find a positive outlet, displaying budding artistic talent, but any tranquility from the man who gleefully refers to himself as Britain’s most violent prisoner is fleeting.

Bronson-3Rather than a conventional linear narrative, Refn chose two framing devices: Bronson staring into the camera narrating the film, and imagined scenes of Bronson onstage in mime makeup in front of an audience while he acts out scenes from his life, symbolizing Bronson’s desire for notoriety.  These bizarre fantasy sequences include Bronson acting out a schizophrenic conversation, speaking as himself from the normal side of his face, then spinning around to speak from the other side, which is made up to look like a female nurse.  There’s another weird bit with Hardy breaking into an over-the-top rendition of David Cassidy’s “When I’m a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” silhouetted by footage of Bronson’s prison riot, with exaggerated expressions and flourishes, like an opera singer.   Refn favors odd musical choices, often classical and operatic, that recall Quentin Tarantino’s incongruous soundtracks, and there’s a steady undercurrent of dark humor.  Calling Bronson a black comedy might be an exaggeration, but not too much of one.  The movie is not without its funny bits (Peterson settles on his fighting name of Charlie Bronson after his manager rejects his first idea to call himself “Charlton Heston”), and Hardy’s performance and running narration has a hard-to-miss tongue-in-cheek undertone.  The film opens with the “based on a true story” tagline, and while it takes many elements from the real Peterson/Bronson (Hardy conducted lengthy correspondence with the real Bronson, including prison visits, while preparing for the role), it plays fast and loose with the facts, embellishing some incidents and fabricating others, and functioning more as a tall tale of Bronson’s exploits, as narrated from the not necessarily reliable perspective of Bronson himself, than a straight biopic.  As played by Tom Hardy, Peterson/Bronson is an onscreen cousin of the likes of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex Delarge from A Clockwork Orange or Paul Bettany’s nameless Number One in Gangster No. 1.    

bronson_top_29511aThis is not quite a one-man show, but Tom Hardy, almost unrecognizable with a bald head and handlebar mustache, is the only actor with significant screentime, and he dominates the screen with a fearsome intensity in an all-out “wild and crazy guy” performance that’s almost enough to make Bronson worth watching at least once.  For Hardy, this was a second shot at a breakout role after his first, the villain in 2002’s much-maligned box office flop Star Trek: Nemesis, crashed and burned.  In the meantime, Hardy has made a slow crawl toward becoming a fairly well-known character actor in his native Britain, appearing in everything from gangster movies to period costume dramas, but Bronson is his forceful return to the spotlight, and it involved virtually reinventing himself, including beefing up through a grueling workout regimen (it’s strange to associate the burly, macho, swaggering actor here with being the same one who was scrawny and almost effeminate in Nemesis six years earlier).  Hardy holds nothing back either physically or acting-wise, displaying full frontal nudity in several scenes, getting frequently battered and bloodied, and letting loose with moments of explosive rage.  It’s a bravura, ferocious, no-holds-barred tour de force that rivals vintage De Niro, Pacino, or Gary Oldman at their most volcanic.  One could argue it’s more vaudeville showboating than three-dimensional acting, with little subtlety or nuance to be found (though the same could sometimes be said of Pacino), but it’s magnetic either way.   If there’s one compelling reason to watch Bronson, it’s easily Hardy, whose seemingly boundless gusto bolsters various otherwise unremarkable scenes.

The biggest problem with Bronson—besides its unnecessarily strange, self-consciously artsy and pretentious style—is that it never gives us anything more than surface.  Everything is in-your-face with a kinetic hyper-stylization that one feels Guy Ritchie would approve of.  The movie never attempts to delve into what makes Bronson tick besides his incessant craving to be infamous, and he’s as much of a one-dimensional borderline cartoon character at the end as he is at the beginning, a simple relentless misanthrope whose dial is permanently set to ten and who seems to have no more idea than anyone else why he does the things he does (proven most clearly when he takes a prison librarian hostage and is then stumped when the warden asks what he wants).  The only scenes with a speck of variety are during his 69 days as a free man, where he shows a flicker of a softer side.  It’s interesting to note that, as much violence as Bronson rains down on any poor soul who crosses his path, with little or no provocation, he is never violent toward his girlfriend Alison.  In fact, his awkward, almost shy attempts to impress her are the only moments where he is remotely sympathetic (although his idea of a romantic gesture is to steal an expensive wedding ring by smashing the salesman’s head through the glass), but these bits are few and fleeting.  After an hour-and-a-half, all the ranting and raving, brawls, and hostage-taking gets repetitive, and there’s only so far all of Hardy’s flamboyant bravado can take the material.  As Shakespeare would say, “it is all sound and fury, signifying nothing”.  Bronson has its compelling moments, and is a noteworthy acting showcase for Tom Hardy, but as an overall film experience, it ultimately rings hollow.

* *1/2