Rating: B/ Charlie Bronson (Tom Hardy) is a guy who loves to kick the shit out of people. It’s as simple as that, this film carefully avoids wrapping Charlie’s derangement into a neat package or coming up with pat psychiatric explanation for his crazy out of control behavior. As far as we know, Bronson was never molested, beaten with a belt, or locked in a cupboard. Born Michael Peterson to average comfortably middle-class parents (Amanda Burton and Andrew Forbes), Charlie (who picked the moniker from the name of the Death Wish star with the help of his uncle (Hugh Ross,) the proprietor of a sleazy nightclub) just really loves to fight. In fact, he’s famous for it, dubbed ‘Britain’s Most Violent Prisoner’ for his unhinged savagery.
Bronson is a bit like A Clockwork Orange actually, so if you like A Clockwork Orange you might like this. It’s highly stylized, hyper kinetic, and surreal, and featuring a completely amoral but charming protagonist who society thinks it can cure. The main difference being, of course, that Bronson is based on a true story; the story of notorious criminal Michael Peterson, who have spent most of his life in prison. If this movie is to be believed, he loves prison; it’s where he’s most in his element. Peterson (‘Bronson’) has never killed anyone, and unlike A Clockwork Orange‘s Alex DeLarge you never once see him lay hands on a woman. But police, guards, and fellow prisoners are all fair game in his eyes to totally fucking beat senseless. And what, pray tell, is the reason for all this violence? Why indeed? Peterson wanted to be a celebrity of course. And from the looks of it, he’s very nearly succeeded.
Tom Hardy has infinite plus screen presence in this movie, playing a snarling, ostentatious narcissist for whom violence comes as second nature. Hardy is not a huge guy, but he bulked up considerably to play Bronson and watching him, you can understand why he is feared and abhorred by the guards in the various prisons where he spends time incarcerated. What he lacks in stature, he makes up for in being completely batshit crazy. I mean, this guy just doesn’t give a fuck. He’ll get naked and douse himself in body paint and just go nuts on these guys. It’s not even that he has a personal quarrel with these guards, he just wants to be a subversive cult icon and he doesn’t give a rat ass who he hurts in the process. He’s hypnotic to watch (although I’m concerned about the attention the real Peterson is getting from this movie, it seemed it would be best to ignore someone like him, thus refusing to give him what he wants.)
Oh, and did I mention that Peterson spends a sizable amount of screen time doing a monologue for a faceless, appreciative audience in clown make-up? Yup, you read that right. What’s scarier than a psycho who dresses up as a clown? Nope, I’ve still got nothing. In his ghastly get up (it is clear that he and the audience exists only in his fevered mind as he rots in solitary,) he does kind of a comedic pantomime act from hell, explaining the direction his life has taken and occasionally breaking out in a rage and menacing an imaginary onlooker in the crowd. If it sounds weird as hell, it is, but somehow Tom Hardy makes it work, making Peterson charismatic, if not exactly very sympathetic. The lack of easy explanation for Peterson’s actions only makes the experience of watching this film more unnerving.
Interestingly, Bronson blatantly breaks one of the big rules of screenwriting; it’s character doesn’t change at all over the course of the film. Michael Peterson starts out one sick puppy and none of the events of the movie do anything to change his dark tendencies. On the contrary, the art teacher (James Lance) at the prison who tries to get Michael to tap into his creative unconscious is portrayed as a joke- a wishy-washy, effete, limp-wristed Liberal; kind of a live-action version of the hippie teacher from Beavis and Butthead. The message here seems to be that some people can’t be pinned down so easily, not by a doctor or a therapist, not even by those who know them best. The film’s insistence of being totally unlike any biopic you’ve ever seen makes it kind of refreshing, and sometimes infuriating too, especially the abrupt place the director chooses to end at. If you like weird movies (and I love ’em,) the kinds that, like Peterson, cannot be easily categorized, do all that’s in your power to find this bizarre, underrated little movie. Tom Hardy makes this film what it is, and he pulls it off with pure chutzpah.