I would say that the Brits get all the good stuff before we do, but it turns out they don’t. Sometimes they have to wait months for American movies to be released over there, so it’s only right that every now and then we should have to wait for one of theirs. Bronson was released in the UK on March 13, 2009, and will be hitting US theaters sometime this month. You win this round, England, but we’ll see where America lands on the health care debate. Wait. Crap.
Bronson is the story of Michael Peterson, better known as Charles Bronson, Britain’s most famous criminal. After an initial sentence of seven years for robbing a post office, Bronson took hostages, staged rooftop protests, beat the living hell out of more than a few people, and as a result spent the subsequent thirty-four years behind bars. Thirty of those have been in solitary confinement. In all that time, he’s only spent an accumulated 122 days as a free man.
The movie isn’t your normal biopic. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy) presents viewers with a highly stylized version of Bronson’s life. During the film we see Bronson onstage, sometimes in makeup, narrating his life story. Bronson is played brilliantly by Tom Hardy. And unless you’ve seen Hardy in some of his other work like Layer Cake or Star Trek: Nemesis, you can’t fully appreciate him here. The bald head, the mustache, the extra 42 pounds, Hardy’s completely transformed himself. He takes on the role with a frightening intensity that few other actors are able to match.
In the film, Bronson makes a distinction between Michael Peterson and Charles Bronson, who he sees as his alter ego. One is extremely violent while the other can be considered the gentle giant. And in the same way those two sides come together to create a truly unique character, a strange mix of violence and comedy come together to create a truly unique movie. And I do have to give the filmmakers their due for telling their story in such an outside-the-box way. Refn presents Bronson in a way that is both hilarious and tragic. Or maybe that’s hilariously tragic. And I don’t mean that as a joke.
You might have a hard time feeling sympathy for Bronson. From what we see onscreen, he didn’t have a bad upbringing. He says himself that his parents were good, respectable people. You’re left thinking that Bronson pulls all the crazy stuff he pulls because either, he needs the attention, or, he’s truly crazy. I didn’t feel like the movie was making the case for Bronson’s release (and maybe they weren’t trying to). Saying that 30 years in solitary confinement is rough is an understatement, but when all you’ve done your entire life is take hostages and beat people up, what do you expect to happen? But while you may not sympathize with him, you do find yourself — perhaps grudgingly — liking him. It’s a testament to Hardy’s performance.
Taking a story like Bronson’s and adapting it for the big screen has its drawbacks. One of those is that it didn’t have a strong narrative. That is, the movie never felt like it was building toward its conclusion, which comes unexpectedly. In the film we see Bronson go to jail, get released, go back to jail, and stay in jail. After reading a bit on Bronson’s time in prison, there’s plenty that the filmmakers left out. A few things, such as a rooftop protest Bronson staged in 1983, are briefly glossed over during one of his on-stage monologues. The sequences showing Bronson’s time out of prison feel like they were cut short. It would have been nice to have had those parts of the story fleshed out. As it is, it feels like a half-hour chunk of the movie is missing.
I felt just a little torn on this one. I think Bronson is a great movie. Hardy is fantastic and the entire thing is a lot of fun to watch, but once you start picking it apart a bit, you find the substance a bit lacking. Hardy’s performance and the film’s humor go a ways toward making up for it, but ultimately, Bronson probably won’t be considered in the same league with movies like There Will Be Blood. Still, it’s on my Top 10 List for the year and I think you should definitely check it out.