I love Death Wish. It’s an all out crazy movie that is reined in just enough so that it doesn’t become complete parody, unlike its infinite iterations. Charles Bronson, the main star of that movie, is sort of crazy in a Wesley Snipes kind of way, except without the whole tax fraud thing. Bronson became the go-to guy when you needed an actor to kick a whole lot of ass throughout the 70s. He always did it with flair and Bronson’s craziness was always complemented by that element of “badassery.”
Bronson the movie, however, is just flat out insane. Based on the life of Britain’s most violent prisoner (who took his name after the actor), Bronson does not shy away from anything. Above all else this is a performance piece for Tom Hardy, who plays the titular character. With phenomenal facial hair, Hardy demonstrates such brutal extravagance and violent bravery that while the film’s plot occasionally drags, his performance commands attention at all time.
The film begins with Bronson facing the camera telling the audience quite frankly, “My name is Charles Bronson and all my life I’ve wanted to be famous.” The film then cuts to Bronson appearing on stage in front of a large audience. The stage becomes a trope throughout the film. On stage Bronson performs a sort of vaudeville show, which mirrors the current state of his psyche.
Nicholas Winding Refn (who directed the brilliant Pusher trilogy) weaves Bronson’s tale with a great sense of rhythm throughout the first half. With such a frenetic character it is of special note that Refn’s direction is methodical and calculated often letting shots go on for an almost uncomfortable amount of time. We get shots of Bronson’s face just staring intensely into the camera– this is a film in which the audience is clearly implicated. Bronson is on our stage and we are savoring every minute of this man’s insanity. We also get shots of Bronson naked. Right away Bronson asserts itself as a brutal film. Within five minutes of the film’s opening Tom Hardy is shown fighting guards…completely naked. Think Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises but with even more dedication and more blood.
After those first five minutes Bronson follows the trajectory of most biopics and that is what this film is at heart: a biopic of a man who blurs the border of genius and insanity. Bronson is shown as a child (then known as simply Michael Peterson) who is cherished by his parents but just loves violence because its something he is good at. In school he punches students and teachers and at work he steals money. Bronson is simply drawn to a life of crime.
Eventually he gets thrown in jail, but prison for Bronson is “a hotel room.” Making his way through various jails where he pummels countless guards, Bronson is eventually let out briefly because he becomes too expensive to keep. But what the audience finds out is that Bronson is not fit for our world. He tries working in an underground boxing ring and that doesn’t work out. He tries living with his uncle in a brothel. That too doesn’t work out. He is a man trapped in a romantic world of violence created during childhood. No matter how he may try and conform, Bronson ultimately is left excluded.
But Bronson is not portrayed as some entirely good character who is merely misunderstood; Refn simply situates Bronson in a world of corrupt wardens, child molesters, and other murderers. While the film does set Bronson’s beatings to classical music giving the whole film a sort of operatic feel, it makes no claims that Bronson is a good person. Nor does Refn suggest that Bronson should or even could exist outside of jail. There are moments in the film where Bronson appears to have shed his violent lifestyle and been “rehabilitated” but quickly Bronson closes the gate on a possible bright, crime-free future. Of course as Bronson tells us though, “Everything happens for a reason.”
The charm that Bronson has is really credited to Tom Hardy’s performance – Hardy is funny and even charismatic. On stage Hardy’s smile stretches from cheek to cheek as if he is in on a joke; he has finally achieved what he wanted, he is famous. This is an unsettling performance, and an unsettling character precisely because his actions seem to stem from no specific incident. Everything does not actually happen for a reason despite what Bronson says. Bronson wasn’t abused as a child, and he never had a traumatic experience that shifted his perception of life. Bronson is violent because that is simply who he is. Caked in sweat and blood Bronson derives all pleasure from inflicting pain.
Unlike Death Wish, or the many other countless action flicks, Bronson does not endorse violence. All of Charles Bronson the actor’s “badassness” is missing from Charles Bronson the prisoner. There is no glorified violence in Bronson; each punch incites a wince and each kick, a cringe. All the while the character remains fascinating specifically because he attacks our notions of what a criminal should be—criminals should be ugly, hateful people who want to repent. Bronson is none of those, and Bronson the movie is made all the better because of it.
Bronson is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes extreme violence and abundant profanity.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; written by Brock Norman Brock and Mr. Refn; director of photography, Larry Smith; edited by Mat Newman; produced by Rupert Preston and Danny Hansford; released by Magnet Releasing. At the Kendall. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes.
WITH: Tom Hardy (Michael Peterson/Charles Bronson), Matt King (Paul Daniels), Amanda Burton (Mum) and James Lance (Art Teacher).