Monday, February 4, 2013

Blogorium Review: Bronson

 Bronson is not the fictionalized story of Charles Bronson, just to get that out of the way. I know that many of you saw the cover (as I did) and thought (as I did not) "I don't remember Charles Bronson being bald or having a curly moustache. I mean, I guess he was tough but this guy looks like he could be Bane from Batman, for crying out loud," or something to that effect. That's a fair reaction, so just so you know, this is not a biopic about The Great Escape or Death Wish any more than the Jason Statham The Mechanic is a faithful remake of The Mechanic and not just a Jason Statham movie with a title you might maybe recognize.

 It is, however, the fictionalized story of Charles Bronson (née Michael Peterson), who has the distinction of being "Britain's Most Violent Prisoner." As the movie (and the back of the DVD / Blu-Ray) tells us, he has "34 Years in Prison, 30 in Solitary Confinement," with the exception of the 69 days he was not in prison which was when he began bare knuckle boxing under the name "Charles Bronson." Bronson is quick to inform us that he's never killed anyone, although he really likes to get in fights, hold people hostage, and cover himself in grease, paint, or feces before fighting prison officials. All because he held up a post office (and then later stole a ring).

 This might be confusing because I swear early in the film that one of the prison officials calls him "Charlie" when he's supposed to be sewing. That would be some time in the 1970s (between 1974, hen he's sent to prison, and when he's sent to an insane asylum), well before he chooses the name "Charles Bronson" which we see happen later in the film. At first I was taken aback but then realized that in a movie that exists in such a heightened state of "reality" that everything we're seeing only exists as Bronson sees it.

 You'd think the parts where he's on a theatre stage addressing an audience while wearing a tuxedo and face paint would be a dead giveaway of that, but I made the mistake of taking some of the flashbacks at face value. My mistake.

 Anyway, so most of the film is designed to be expressionistic or at the very least to not reflect any reality you or I could point to, although it does seem like the real Charles Bronson (not Mr. Majestyk) does actually have the reputation of doing these ridiculous things. There's a moment when he's explaining one of the mental facilities they sent him to before he was released and what happened there, and instead of recreating it he just stands in front of a screen showing (what I assume to be) actual news footage of the riot he caused. Some times the real thing is more effective than trying to re-enact it.

 That said, I don't know how successful Nicholas Winding Refn and Tom Hardy are in conveying this to the audience. A lot of my friends hate Drive (I do not) and if you don't like that then you're really not going to like Bronson. It's way more self consciously "art-y" and has the same affinity for synth-heavy music (example: we learn that it's the 1980s in the movie when the inmates of the asylum are dancing to The Pet Shop Boys' "It's a Sin").

 I liked much of what Refn did visually with the film and I thought Tom Hardy was charismatic and creepy and sometimes very awkward as Charles Bronson / Michael Peterson. There's a section of the film where he goes all "Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys" in the asylum, drooling and shuffling around and generally not accomplishing his goal of "building an empire." I believe Hardy as Bronson when he says prison was his calling and that he believes it's his way of making a name for himself (I mean, they made a movie about him and not about the guy from Death Wish) and it once again steps Tom Hardy away from being Jean-Luc Picard's wimpy clone and towards being a guy who could break Christian Bale in half.

 Maybe the problem is that Refn and co-screenwriter Brock Norman Brock don't ever convey that Charles Bronson is actually having the impact he wants to have. Part of this is that we rarely ever see other prisoners when he's in jail (and while he's in solitary for 30 years, he spends plenty of time outside of his cell) and because it's only the world as Bronson sees it, so there's no stepping back and seeing his actual impact on Britain or anything else that merits what we're told ABOUT Charles Bronson. The mistake they make is only showing us Charles Bronson through his eyes and not the eyes of others, with two exceptions near the end that don't bolster his case.

 One is the Prison Governor(Johnny Phillips) who tells Bronson he's "pathetic" after the whole "building an empire" spiel, and the other Bronson's art teacher (James Lance), who sees his paintings as a way to make himself famous for "discovering" this imprisoned artist. Bronson thanks him by holding him hostage and painting on his face, then he demands the Governor play music while Charlie strips down, paints himself black, and prepares to fight a losing battle with the guards. I like that Bronson holds hostages even though he doesn't seem to want anything, but neither of these perspectives seem to reinforce what Charles Bronson wants his legacy to be. The real Charles Bronson at least popularized the "sock full of quarters" method of beatings as a viable form of revenge.

 So yeah, I guess there are things I liked about Bronson, especially Tom Hardy, but also the movie doesn't quite do its subject justice, or at least adequately convey why it is that Charles Bronson deserves the reputation he has. It gives some anecdotal evidence but I think ultimately I'd have to overturn this verdict and say that the movie version of Michael Peterson is not deserving of the moniker Charles Bronson. I think the real Charles Bronson would agree, even from the grave, where I would still assume he could film Death Wish 6, if he desired. Still, Bronson is worth renting or watching streaming on Netflix. Unless you don't like Drive. If you don't like Drive then maybe you should watch Once Upon a Time in the West. That's on streaming, too.

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