I walked into Bronson knowing absolutely nothing about it. Nor did I know anything about Britain’s most violent prisoner. I’d never even heard of the guy. I’d seen the photos while scanning my feeds of Twitch Film, which had given the film quite a bit of press seeing as how Twitch’s frontman, Todd Brown, seems to be a fan of director Nicolas Winding Refn. Rightfully so. His Pusher trilogy is a vicious crime series that has been dragged through filth and narcotics and then filtered through the sensibilities of high gloss, European music videos. But all I knew about it was that it featured a thickly muscled man with a handlebar moustache and bore the name of one of my favorite tough guy actors of all time. What I found in Refn’s latest film was a kick-ass picture about the prison time of a man that I shouldn’t be rooting for.
But I can’t help myself.
Make no mistake, Charlie Bronson (born, Michael Peterson), is a very bad person. He went to jail before I was born on an armed robbery charge that he should have done seven years for but has managed to stretch that out to thirty four years (thirty of which have been spent in solitary confinement) thanks to exceptionally violent behavior and a dozen instances of hostage-taking. There’s not much to learn about Bronson, apart from the simple fact that he really enjoys beating people up and that’s about all you’re going to take away from this movie. That is, if you happen to miss the criticism of celebrity worship.
By all accounts, Michael Peterson was a good boy raised in a loving household but something went horribly wrong in his teens when he began lashing out violently at anyone who so much as looked at him funny. Inevitably, his life turned to crime and that lack of opportunity and oppressive surroundings of England in the 60’s and 70’s that produced the best heavy metal bands produced one of the world’s most infamous criminals. When an armed robbery that results in around 30 pounds goes bad, Peterson winds up in jail on a seven year bid but driven to make a name for himself and hone his craft, the only thing he’s good at (violence), he stretches his stay out to span 120 prisons, a locked psychiatric hospital and then an asylum for the criminally insane that spans thirty four years of his life, spending less than a year of that on the outside. He manages to rack up millions in damages, dozens of hostages, a noteworthy talent for art, a brief run in the world of underground bare knuckle boxing and a global fanbase that thinks he’s awesome. That is what this movie is about.
A sign of a good movie, to me, is a villainous character that I like when I shouldn’t. I rank Silence of the Lambs among my favorite movies of all time simply because of Hannibal Lecter (I also rank him second only to Darth Vader in my top 5 bad guys of all time). To me, he’s the Boba Fett of horror, a peripheral character of minimal screen time who makes such an impact that I want to see more of him. While I’m not going to put Bronson on any all-time lists, even though I enjoyed it immensely, this is the point that I’m trying to make. I can understand why England likes Charles Bronson so much. He’s a ruthless psychopath and a lack of anything approaching the Son Of Sam Law in England means that the man is free to capitalize on his criminal reputation and has spared no opportunity to tell his story for fame and glory. It’s also a matter of public record that he’s a wildly charismatic figure in the public eye and his fanclub thinks he’s the shit. There’s even a coalition of Free Bronson types. If Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Bronson is accurate, and I’m reading that it is, it’s no wonder that everyone loves this guy…
…Which brings me to Tom Hardy’s downright amazing performance. It must kick ass to be a character actor. I don’t think I would be satisfied being some ordinary actor, suitable for the lead in movie x because of well rounded acting chops. I’d much rather be Al Pacino in Scarface, Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, DeNiro in Taxi Driver or Bill Murray in just about every movie he’s ever been in. Every moment on screen is spent mugging, savoring the delicious dialog you’re provided with and leaving your audience hanging on every word. Which is precisely what Hardy does here. Not only is he the spitting image of the real fake Charles Bronson, his sylized delivery of heavily accented dialog and monolog turns him into the most lovable thug you’ve ever seen. Sure, he might wind up holding you hostage and beating you to the edge of your life, but he’s probably going to entertain you in the meantime with a righteous, lyrical cadence. His life story is, at the very least, fascinating, as Bronson seems to have no motivation other than a mystical love of mayhem.
I had to do a little research on Bronson before I wrote this and the one major criticism from UK sources is that the film gets many of the facts about Bronson’s life wrong and put many things in the wrong order. So be it. Many biographies of criminals get the facts wrong but according to public record, much of Refn’s representation is just dead wrong, but this almost seems beside the point. Apart from a profile of one of the UK’s most fascinating national villains, Bronson seems to be, beneath it all, an exploration of the cult of celebrity. I’m hard pressed to make the call on whose culture is more obsessed with the petty details of the lives of rich people. Is it The United States, where we’re so hungry for famous people that we’ll watch exceptionally boring reality shows about the lives of people who were famous twenty years ago or is it The United Kingdom, where a man whose only claim to fame is a string of particularly bad behavior in prison is considered a public icon worthy of a biopic? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condemning one over the other. I actually think that there’s a special place in hell for people guilty of the sin of celebrity idolatry. May they all burn in hell. Yet, Bronson, or rather, Hardy channeling Bronson goes over and over this idea that in prison he’s capable of leaving some kind of mark on history and this was his intention from the start. The real Charles Bronson does’t seem terribly concerned with immortal infamy. The entire concept is based on a blurb from the cover of one of the UK’s many tabloid rags.
Nicolas Winding Refn has crafted a cult movie that needs a few years to catch on. Bronson has the potential to be a cornerstone British cult flick like Snatch as the criminal appeal and winding passages of flashy dialog fuel one of the year’s most compelling pictures. It’s a real work of art, full of high gloss, sexy photography and one of the most infectious performances of the year. Mark my words, Charles Bronson will come to define Tom Hardy’s entire career.