Is “Bronson” This Century’s “A Clockwork Orange?”

Review, “Bronson” – **** stars (out of ****)
David’s Favorite Movie of 2009

Released October 9, 2009
Directed by Nicolas Winding-Refn
Written by Brock Norman Brock (that’s his listed name, Filmcore doesn’t believe it’s his birth name though, ’cause come on) and Nicolas Winding-Refn
Cinematography by Larry Smith
Starring Tom Hardy, James Lance, Amanda Burton, Juliet Oldfield, Matt King
Running Time: 92 minutes
Budget: $230,000
Worldwide Box Office: $2.3 million

2009’s micro-budgeted “Bronson” is a visceral biopic covering the genesis of “Britain’s most dangerous prisoner” during the 1970’s. Written and directed by the Dane Nicolas Winding-Refn (“Drive,” the original “Pusher” trilogy, the reviled-by-Alex “Only God Forgives”), “Bronson” may soon become one of the classics that toes the line of glorifying sadistic violence, kind of a demented cross between “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) and “Fight Club” (1999). At times it feels like a never-ending circle of carnage, but Tom Hardy’s brilliance and flair for seriocomic line readings balances out the brutality that some viewers could get tired of. This is by far my favorite Hardy performance; his comedic talent is obvious from the beginning, his portrayal of a prisoner who adores savagery is close to perfect, and his proclivity for bizarre personas no doubt made him jump on this project.

It’s an adaptation of the real-life story of career convict Michael Gordon Peterson, an inmate so savage he earned the aforementioned “most dangerous prisoner” title by battling prison guards and his fellow inmates, in an effort to extend his various sentences. Peterson is a career convict who, during one of his interludes between jail stints, took up bare-knuckle boxing. Peterson’s fight promoter Paul Edmonds (called “Paul Daniels” in the movie and played by Matt King) assigned him the nickname “Charles Bronson,” and it stuck. “Bronson” the movie certainly leaves its viewers unsettled, but perhaps that’s the mark of a film that successfully presents the frightening side of human nature. This film is certainly not a feel good story; it never attempts to explain the motives for such viciousness from the lead character and perhaps that’s the most unnerving questions we are left with from the film.

The movie brought out themes that were reminiscent of what “A Clockwork Orange” wanted to illustrate:
1. The pointless attempt for the authorities to understand the purpose of crime and violence leads to solutions that turn humans into drones and leave the viewer disconcerted with the results.
2. The thirst for anarchy is one of the costs of free will that will leave some people hopelessly adrift and unable to connect with the public at large.
And 3. The relation between art and violence (which is a continuing theme in “Clockwork”) is especially obvious towards the end of “Bronson.” If this movie ever has a climax, it would probably be the eerie final scene where he turns his art teacher Phil Danielson (James Lance) into a mural. It is unclear what physical state the teacher is in because he is covered from head to toe with tapestry — until Charlie Bronson unveils it, revealing the teacher’s face covered in paint, an apple in his mouth. “The Flower Duet” is playing in the background, while cops prepare to break into the art room to no doubt (again) beat Bronson to a bloody pulp. The scene is unsettling, spooky, almost paranormal, but the contradiction is clear: beauty and cruelty can be perfectly at peace with each other. At the end of the scene, Bronson embraces the movie’s conclusive brawl.

About those fight scenes — they’re all top notch, from start to finish. No surprise, really, since Hardy is probably best known for his action-packed Hollywood films (e.g. “Warrior,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” this year’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”) where he performs his own fight scenes with his signature ferocity. That trend looks to continue in the November release of “Legend,” the tale of twin London underworld kingpins — both played by Hardy, which is already a smash hit overseas.

In “Bronson,” 15 minutes don’t go by without at least some sort of run-in with the authorities, or fights with his fellow “entertainers” (a self-aware element that screams “Fight Club”). The fight scenes are somewhat glorified: Euro-Disco (or in some cases classical symphonic) music playing in the background, the theatrical lighting suggests their artifice, the action is slowed down, etc. Hardy is almost always missing an article of clothing during these fight scenes, making the viewer think of a Greco Roman-era wrestler. Perhaps it was Refn’s desire to call attention to the fact that Hardy’s Peterson/Bronson is a Performance with a capital P, which was the right call, since the fight scenes without this self-awareness would be quite brutal. Hardy’s talent goes far beyond his physicality, by now it’s pretty much agreed-upon that he is one of the most sought-after talents in Hollywood.

There is a love story in the film, between Bronson and his mistress Alison (Juliet Oldfield), but it functions essentially as a footnote in a loosely tied-together plot. The romance component isn’t present throughout the duration of the film, but it serves as another reminder of the unusual plot structure and subtle humor that makes this movie oddly marvelous.  For those who are getting the impression that this is mainstream “guy” movie due to the violence and action-packed sequences, it certainly isn’t. Perhaps it’s more of a cult classic, but the truth is its European fabric (director, lead actor, supporting actors, producer, and distributor) doesn’t lend itself to a typical American action movie. It’s much deeper, more visceral, disturbing, but most importantly richer in its construction. Not to mention the acting talent is superior to the usual Hollywood-popcorn action films.

The movie isn’t without its flaws, but this is a must see for those who like the action yet peculiarity of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998), Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” (2003) and “Trainspotting” (1996), and the aforementioned “A Clockwork Orange.” However this film is distinctive, it has an ebb and flow that I’ve never seen and it definitely quenches the moviegoer’s thirst for the eccentric.

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