Judge Patrick Bromley has a death wish.
Thirty-four years in prison. Thirty in solitary confinement. Loving every minute of it.
The 2009 film Bronson, a sort-of biopic about England's most legendary prisoner Charles Bronson, is not a great movie, but contains a performance so great that it warrants a recommendation anyway. Tom Hardy, formerly best known as the slight, somewhat fey Picard clone in the lamentable Star Trek: Nemesis, has undergone a complete transformation to play Bronson: shaved head, enormous build, now all dark and terrifying twistedness. His is laser-focused, unforgettable work, and he alone makes Bronson worth seeing.
Hardy plays Charles Bronson (born Michael Peterson), a nearly life-long inmate of the British prison system who's spent 30 of his 34 incarcerated years in solitary confinement. Bronson narrates his own story both to the camera and to a cheering audience (in his mind), explaining that for him, violence is a form of self-expression. He initially goes to prison on a seven-year sentence for robbery, and enjoys beating up guards the entire time he's there. Released on parole for a short time, Bronson joins an underground fight club organized by his uncle (the man who dubs him Charles Bronson, after the actor), but it isn't long before he steals a diamond ring to propose to a girl and winds up back in jail. There, he resurrects his favorite activity—beating on guards—and continues to have his sentence extended.
That simplistic plot description should clue you in to a lot of what's wrong with Bronson: to put it plainly, it's repetitive. Bronson is locked up; Bronson explodes in violence and beats up several guards. Bronson is locked up again, beats up guards. Repeat. The point is made early on that the man thrives on violence, and the film does a good job of building up the tension that will inevitably explode in a full-on brawl. Unfortunately, once we've seen it once or twice, all the tension is let out of the film; we know right where it's headed at all times, and exactly how it will play out. Director Nicholas Winding Refn stages things as inventively as he can—particularly the sequences where Bronson address the audience directly—but he's eventually hampered by a screenplay that takes a few good ideas and overdoes them. And while the movie seems to want to explore Bronson's psychology, it rarely does to any real effect; most of what we learn about the man is either too on the nose or, in many cases, explicitly stated in monologue. We don't really come away from the movie with an understanding of Charles Bronson, which I almost wouldn't mind (I'm not sure how much understanding there is of a man this violently removed from normal society) if the movie was set up as though we were probing what makes him tick. It's dressed up like a case study, but reveals nothing.
Thankfully, there's always Hardy's performance to fall back on. What the screenplay lacks, Hardy makes up for with his funny, scary portrayal of Bronson; even if the film doesn't allow us to understand him, Hardy at least makes him remarkably consistent—we believe he always acts according to his own nature because Hardy convinces us it is so. For all the praise heaped upon actors like Robert DeNiro for Raging Bull and Charlize Theron for Monster, it's downright criminal that Hardy's performance has been so overlooked—not just for the physical transformation, but for the actual acting, too.
Magnolia's DVD of Bronson presents the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, enhance for anamorphic playback. The film looks incredibly grainy and dirty, but that's by design; it's difficult to see if the disc has any visual flaws when many of those flaws are the intent of the director. Having said that, I expect Bronson looks mostly just as it should on DVD. The 5.1 audio track (there's also a standard stereo track, which I did not sample) is more problematic, as it muddles the dialogue somewhat in the front channels and boosts the soundtrack and score; with the volume turned way up just so I could hear the dialogue, my system was given a jolt with every musical cue. While it's not a total dealbreaker, the balance certainly could be better.
The supplemental section is mostly standard stuff. There's a behind-the-scenes featurette, a collection of interviews with the director and key cast members, a short piece on how star Tom Hardy bulked up to play Bronson (the before and after pictures are pretty remarkable) and the movie's original trailer. The most interesting bonus feature is a series of short monologues recorded by the real Bronson, shown over a montage of stills from the film. While Bronson hardly says anything interesting, it's the only time he appears anywhere in the supplements and it's cool to compare his voice to the one adopted by Hardy.
While Bronson never quite caught on with mainstream audiences (I'm not even sure how much it deserves to) and never quite made a household name out of Tom Hardy (which it should have), there is, at least, some good news: director George Miller has tapped the actor to pick up the reigns as "Mad" Max Rockatansky in the next installment in his Mad Max series (tentatively titled Fury Road). Now there's the film that ought to give Tom Hardy his big break, at which point audiences will hopefully rediscover Bronson—if not for the film, then for Hardy's performance. He's a force of nature.
Bronson may be guilty, but Bronson is not.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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