Thursday, October 8, 2009

Nicolas Winding Refn's BRONSON flexes its bulging biceps -- and whacks us silly

From almost the opening moments, once you see those big block scarlet letters against a black screen, you have a sense that perhaps subtlety will not be the key element in BRONSON, the most recent of writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn's films (the Pusher trilogy, Bleeder and Fear X) to reach our shores. That's

OK; we can get subtlety elsewhere. And there is something about massive red lettering on onyx that gets our gonads going. There's also something about the massively-built star of this film -- Tom Hardy -- that also gets us going, but more in the mode of running for the hills. This guy plays one of Britain's most famous criminals/prisoners who, although born with the name of Michael Peterson, decided to rename himself Charles Bronson (in honor of the famous Death Wish movie star, yes). Hence the film's title.

Mr. Hardy has a lovely cackle, which he uses often throughout the film -- when he is not using his fists, that is. Which is most of the time. We see his early life, adolescence and young manhood in bits and pieces, from which we learn that he has a severe behavioral problem. This gets worse. The poor guy just can't seem to help beating the shit out of the police, prison guards and anyone who gets in his way. Why? Your guess is as good as mine -- or that of everyone else involved in the film, including Mr Refn (pictured above), all of who seem to have devoted about a mini-second of time to this question. More than anything else, Bronson reminded me of Eric Bana's early film Chopper, but the former is as stylized as the latter is realistic.

Much of the stylization works toward making the movie entertaining, though occasionally, as when Bronson essays both the role of himself and then -- by turning the other cheek -- his nurse, the stunt goes on too long. The musical score, also heavy into stylization, is one of the most insistent in memory. A faux musical number, a bevy of set pieces, repeated bouts of whomping the guards, newsreels from the day and much more collude to hide the emptiness at the center of the movie, where even a modicum of depth would be greatly appreciated. If Refn initially appears to be glamorizing his "hero," don't worry: in time you will suspect that he means to elevate the guy to sainthood. The press kit lauds the film for being a "scathing indictment of celebrity culture." Don't believe it; the movie's part and parcel of that culture.

The final set piece is a long one devoted to scenes of Bronson and his art class, in which his teacher says he excels. Art as the savior: yes! No. This provides the film's most interesting moments and leaves us feeling (if still barely understanding) the mystery of char-
acter. All along the way, there has been no apparent attempt by anyone -- parents, police, friends, the man himself and certainly not Mr, Refn -- to even begin to figure this guy out. Even if the mystery of a man like Bronson is that he is unfathomable, we ought to at least see someone try to figure him out. Instead we get histrionics, operatics and music -- oh, that music -- and colors and lights. And fights. The end result? A very classy exploitation movie, one that, were it Australian, might have been included in the delightful documentary just released this week to DVD, Not Quite Hollywood. Mr. Hardy is terrific (look at that grin below) and Bronson is dumb fun -- but it's also very nearly meaningless.

Distributed via Magnet/Magnolia Releasing, the movie makes its official theatrical debut (after a special preview at BAM Rose Cinema last week) in New York City at the Angelika Film Center. Upcoming playdates and theaters can be found here.

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