Chopper, the debut feature from New Zealand born director Andrew Dominik (Jesse James, Killing them Softly) is a semi biographical tale of notorious Australian criminal Mark ‘Chopper’ Read. The story is based on the autobiographic works of Read which when published became best sellers in the author’s home country. A pre title disclaimer makes it clear though that the film is not a biography of the man and that some scenes are invented. Chopper (Eric Bana) made a name for himself as a tough guy-extortionist and boasted to having committed several murders but was never convicted of any. Inside prison he was a vicious inmate, responsible for several brutal assaults, some of which are played out on screen. When out of prison, Chopper has to keep his wits about him and with several contracts out on his life, he becomes ever more paranoid and sadistically violent.
Chopper was the sort of cult film which a lot of people would talk about at school. “Ah, mate. You seen that Chopper? It’s wicked” Because the film was liked by the same sort of people who enjoyed Guy Ritchie and other films I had no interest in, I took their enthusiasm with a pinch of salt. Over a decade later though, I thought I’d give the film ago and when I saw it was on TV one night, I decided to record it. I hadn’t realised how long ago that night was though until I noticed that the ad breaks I was fast-forwarding through were Christmas themed. Today is May the 27th.
Within the first five minutes of Chopper I was struck by two things. Firstly I was in awe of Eric Bana’s performance. He is sublime in the lead role and has, in my opinion, never been better. The second thing that caught my eye was the oppressive lighting. This gave the prison scenes a washed out and uncomfortable look which reminded me of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson, a film which shares many themes and was surely influenced by this movie. The stark but brightly lit prison scenes have an almost otherworldly look to them and the prisoners seem to be locked in together, in large open spaces with nowhere to hide from each other’s violent anger. The lighting seems as though it could be a catalyst for the violence, such is the domineering effect it has on the room. Scenes outside the jail play off the monotone prison settings and are awash with colour. The muggy interiors have a similar overpowering and repressive look to the jail though.
I wasn’t particularly interested in the plot of Chopper and to be perfectly honest it doesn’t really have one. The film is more of a character study but what a character. Again reminiscent of Charlie Bronson, Chopper is a man who can turn in an instant and you never know when he is going to flip out and cause someone a great deal of pain. He has the same charming socio-pathic edge to him as Joe Pesci’s Tommy from Goodfellas, a man who you’d be terrified to say anything to, less it be taken the wrong way. These are terrifying characters that fortunately I can gorp at through my television without ever having to come into contact with. (Chopper, if you ever read this, I mean no offense. Seriously. Sorry, yeah?) I think I’m safe. There’s no way they’d give him a passport.
Eric Bana makes the film with his terrific central performance. A quick glance at his filmography tells me I’ve seen him in eight films before today but he’s the sort of actor who I’ve never really thought much about. To me he’s always just been ‘that guy, from that film. No, the other one’. Here though he is spectacular and it makes me wonder why we haven’t seen anything as good subsequently. There are other actors in the film and the supporting cast are generally fine but at times you forget that other actors are even on the screen when Bana is in full flow. He creates the sort of menace filled character which gives you shivers yet whom you can’t turn away from. It’s an almost hypnotic performance. Andrew Dominik has a visual flair which continued to grow in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford but the cinematography and look of Killing them Softly is much closer to this film. Both share the look of a dangerous, down and out, forgotten metropolis, devoid of hope. Overall I thought that Chopper worked brilliantly as a character study and Bana is incredible but the story didn’t engage me and I found the post prison scenes a little dull and repetitive at times. I can see its cult appeal and it’s a film I’m happy to have watched but it’s not the sort of film I’d return to in a hurry.
- Eric Bana spent two days living with Mark Read in preparation for the role. Bana was suggest by Read himself.
- Bana ate junk food for a month to put on enough weight for the role.