This is a rough, tough, sometimes sadistically brutal film. Yet co-writers Brock Norman Brock and Nicolas Winding Refn (who also directed) instill it with a dark and outrageous sense of humor.
Jumping around in time, mixing fantasy with fact, and featuring one of the best and most outlandish performances of the year, “Bronson” wastes no time in establishing just how nasty its title character is. And just how intense, violent, startling, funny and different from the mainstream a movie can be.
The facts are that in 1974, a young British fellow named Michael Peterson, with a history of violence behind him (when he got into fights at school, it sometimes involved beating up teachers as well as students), walked into a post office one day, toting and ready to use a sawed-off shotgun. He was rewarded with seven years in prison.
Watch out! Here comes the fantasy. Peterson is presented onstage, nattily dressed, in a medium-sized theater, in front of a curiously quiet, packed audience, telling the story of what led him to be put in jail, what happened while he was there, and how he’s fine with it all – how it’s going to make him famous.
You have to wonder, though, almost from the beginning, if what we’re watching is all simply going on inside his head. Yet there’s not much time for wondering, because what’s happening on the screen is so over the top.
Played by English actor Tom Hardy, who’s popped up regularly in TV and films (“Black Hawk Down,” “Star Trek: Nemesis”) over the past decade, Peterson is a ridiculously larger-than-life character who proudly and happily calls himself Britain’s most violent prisoner, and that although prison is, for most people, a “pure, unadulterated, living, breathing hell,” he tries to think of his cell as a hotel room, where he can hone his skills. He also claims to his rapt audience that he’s not a bad guy. But once the flashbacks start, it’s quite clear that he most certainly is.
His time in prison consisted of him starting fights, and prison officials answering in kind by beating the tar out of him. But amidst the constant abuse rained on him, he just smiles ... and strikes back. This is a rough, tough, sometimes sadistically brutal film. Yet co-writers Brock Norman Brock and Nicolas Winding Refn (who also directed) instill it with a dark and outrageous sense of humor.
An early shot shows baby Michael sitting in a crib, making it look like he’s already behind bars. A lengthy stage sequence has Hardy snapping his whole body left and right, revealing, through makeup, a man on one side and a woman on the other, as he recreates his prison experience. At one point he even breaks into song.
This is both a frightening and entertaining film that also stands as an indictment on the British penal system. As its story goes, Peterson was so difficult, and was moved around so much – thereby making the cost of caring for him soar – he was set free on a minor technicality.
It was during this time that he teamed up with another former con, got involved in illegal fistfights (check out the great Charles Bronson film “Hard Times”), where he earned his “fighting name”: Bronson, and after more scuffles with the law, ended up back in the hoosegow. Bronson also becomes his alter ego on the stage.
But no matter how many interesting plot twists fly by, the film is made fascinating due to Hardy’s dazzling performance. A lengthy monologue might lead directly to a vicious brawl. When prison officials drug Peterson/Bronson up to the point where he’s out of it, Hardy puts a little glint in his eye to show, wordlessly, that there’s still something going on inside.
There are times when it’s hard not to think about the great screen villain Hannibal Lecter, especially in the film’s final, haunting shot. But he was just a piece of fiction. This guy is, amazingly, the real thing.
BRONSON (Rated R for violent content, graphic nudity, and language). Cast includes Tom Hardy. 3 stars out of 4.
The Patriot Ledger