STUDIO: Magnolia Home Entertainment
RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes
* Charles Bronson Monologues
* Making of Documentary
* Training Tom Hardy
* Behind-the-Scenes Footage
Charlie Bronson really likes beating the shit out of people and is really good at it too.
Tom Hardy, Tom Hardy, Tom Hardy, Tom Hardy, Tom Hardy
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Light on plot/details and heavy on flamboyant artistry, Bronson is a fever-dream biopic of Charles Bronson. Not Charles Bronson the Lithuanian-American cinema badass. Charles Bronson the infamous British personality billed as “one of the world’s most violent criminals,” who has spent a majority of his adult life in solitary confinement. Presumably because he’s such a huge pussy.
Bronson is what I’d call a “cusper.” Sort of like James Cameron is a cusper – he’s either the most brilliant of the Hollywood by-the-numbers men, or he’s the crappiest of the auteurs. Your pick. Bronson is straddling the line between good and great. It’s either the smartest kid in the general class, or the dumbest kid in the honors class. Where you put it really just depends on what you think is a more flattering position. I think it’s better to be the dumbest kid in the honors class, so that’s where I’ll put Bronson. It’s a crummy great film.
The film ostensibly tells the tale of how low-end low-life Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy) transformed himself into the headlines-making legendary asskicker Charles Bronson. I say ‘ostensibly’ cause while the film does indeed show these events happening, it never really tells us the tale. But I’ll get back to this in second. First let’s talk about what’s great here, because there really is a lot of fantastic shit in the film.
If you’ve read anything at all about Bronson before you’re already aware of the applause and booyahs being heaped on Tom Hardy’s performance. He’s a monster in the movie, and not just in the muscled sense (though he’s fucking yoked). The dude disappears into the character, unrecognizable in everyway. Truly bizarre and inspired, Charlie Bronson is one of the weirdest yet brilliant performances I’ve seen in a while. Right up there with Daniel Plainview. “You’re ridiculous,” Bronson is told in the film. Too true. The way Hardy clenches his fists, the way he herky-jerks when he walks about, the way he uses his nutty mustache, the way he cocks his head – Bronson seems like a silent film comedy star. The fact that the character can then turn believably frightening at the drop of a hat is a great thing to behold. More than any movie I’ve seen in recent years, Bronson’s quality rests entirely on the performance of the lead. Kinda like Napoleon Dynamite, if Hardy’s work doesn’t do anything for you, I’m not sure there’s much else for ya here. (Napoleon Dynamite didn’t do it for me, btw.)
This artwork looks suspiciously familiar.
That said, Refn has a presence here too. Bronson could’ve been told in a straightforward presentation – The Hurricane with more face punching. Instead Refn went for a heightened reality. The whole film is scattered with amusingly unreal characters and interactions, and most scenes are staged in overly interesting one-offs. It’s basically the most violent Wes Anderson movie ever.
Refn delivers some excellent moments too. From small character stuff, like when Bronson gets out of prison and is taken back to his parents’ new and much smaller home; the way Refn places the camera, Bronson seems comically just too big for the home, a bull in a china shop. To emotional camerawork, like a simple one-shot scene of Bronson pacing in his cell, the camera whirling 360 as it follows him, that makes you feel just as stir crazy as he does. To moments of gleeful tension, like the film’s opening fight where we meet Bronson, naked and covered in black paint, pistoning up and down as he waits for the approaching guards to open his cell door and come in. Good stuff.
Speaking of fights… there are a lot of fights in the film. Refn does a good job of staving off monotony, which is fairly impressive given that everyone one of Bronson’s fights is essentially the same – many dudes attack him, he punches a lot of them until they hog pile him. Though like I noted above, Refn really shines in the moments leading up to the fights, as we see Bronson readying himself for battle. Sometimes it is tense. Sometimes it is funny. The most hilarious moment comes when Bronson kidnaps a prison librarian and makes the poor sap grease him up as he awaits the arrival of the guards.
And speaking of naked… if you want to see Tom Hardy’s dick a lot, you’re in luck. Homie is completely nude seemingly every other fight. The film’s climactic fight scene really gives Eastern Promises a run for its money when it comes to lengthy wiener-filled battles.
These are the elements that make Bronson a great film. What is holding it back from full on greatness – and making it a cusper – is that what I’ve just described is really all there is to the movie. Tom Hardy gives an amazing performance… out of basically thin air. Sound and fury, signifying nothing, so to speak. After I saw the Halloween reboot I said that I didn’t need to know more about Michael Meyers and what turned him into a monster, but I desperately wanted to know more about what made Michael Peterson become Charles Bronson.
The film opens with Bronson directly addressing the camera and saying, “I’m Charles Bronson and for as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be famous.” But why? He says that his parents were great and that he had a normal childhood. So what happened? We briefly see that he has a wife and a child, but neither ever play a role in the film. I loved seeing Bronson with his parents again mid-film, but it is all too brief. By definition Bronson is a character study, but I walked away from the film with little understanding of the man. Refn wants to convey that violence is Bronson’s artistic expression/outlet, but to me that felt contrived purely for the film, Refn’s vision of a man he seems to know little about.
back in time to learn more about the army of the Twelve Monkeys.
The film features numerous scenes of Bronson addressing the camera directly. In these scenes he’s always wearing outlandish clown make-up, which I took to represent the aspect of Bronson that is always performing. It seems to imply that Bronson is kind of full of shit. In reality I assume he is. Bronson is after all his creation. Yet the film is unable to delve past this, as though the real Bronson was literally controlling what we got to see. Which is a shame, as the dude is a fascinating subject. And there was a lot of talent working on this film. I’d never heard of Charlie Bronson before this. Maybe the film plays better if you have. I can’t say. I personally was left wanting more.
A great mediocre film, or a mediocre great film? You can judge for yourself. Undoubtedly worth your viewing.
Like the film itself, the DVD is almost amazing. Some of the features are excellent, like a video detailing how Hardy beefed himself up to Bronson size, and the DVD’s true centerpiece: a lengthy monologue/interview with the real Bronson. But the behind the scenes talking-head featurette is completely redundant if you’ve watched the interviews (from which the talking-head piece was assembled), and Refn I thought came across a bit dull and full of himself. And I would’ve loved a mini-doc about the real life Bronson. It’s like the movie is trying to prevent you from learning anything about the man that he doesn’t want to tell you himself. Hey, maybe that’s the theme the film was going for. Who knows?