A Performance Artist Whose Medium Is Rage

Tom Hardy in 'Bronson' i

A Bit Of The Ultraviolence? With his thoroughgoing ruthlessness and his curious charm, Britain's infamous professional thug Charlie Bronson (Tom Hardy) inspires comparisons to the psychotic anti-hero of A Clockwork Orange. Magnet Releasing hide caption

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Tom Hardy in 'Bronson'

A Bit Of The Ultraviolence? With his thoroughgoing ruthlessness and his curious charm, Britain's infamous professional thug Charlie Bronson (Tom Hardy) inspires comparisons to the psychotic anti-hero of A Clockwork Orange.

Magnet Releasing

Bronson

  • Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
  • Genre: Crime, Drama, Biography
  • Running Time: 92 minutes

Rated R, for an anti-hero whose sensibilities will offend just about everyone else's

With: Tom Hardy, Terry Stone, Amanda Burton, Kelly Adams, Matt King

(Recommended)

Operating under the nom de thug Charlie Bronson, professional inmate Michael Peterson has brutalized his way from a simple seven-year armed robbery sentence to 35 years and counting — 30 of them in solitary confinement. Dubbed "the most violent prisoner in Britain" (and for the effort involved in containing him, the most expensive, too), Peterson has attacked guards and fellow convicts, incited riots, staged hostage situations and generally brought chaos to the dozens of institutions through which he's passed. His rap sheet is tabloid heaven, but the "whys" of his case are a little hard to fathom: He doesn't come from a broken home, he wasn't bullied or abused as a child, and despite his yen for inflicting grievous bodily harm, his open-ended prison sentence includes not a single fatality.

Mercifully, the two-fisted biopic Bronson doesn't play armchair psychologist; the question of what makes Charlie fight isn't something director Nicolas Winding Refn and his co-screenwriter, Brock Norman Brock, care to resolve. And whatever answers they do provide concern Peterson's submission to his alter ego (an homage to the famed movie tough guy) and the cult of celebrity that transformed this common brute into a notorious villain of Old West proportions. Even his face — a gleaming oval of pure malevolence, with a bald pate and a mid-19th century moustache — suggests a "wanted" sign posted on the town sheriff's door.

Red Tom Hardy i

Bronson has made a life out of his life sentence by playing to an imagined audience that revels in his "art." Magnet Releasing hide caption

itoggle caption Magnet Releasing
Red Tom Hardy

Bronson has made a life out of his life sentence by playing to an imagined audience that revels in his "art."

Magnet Releasing

Fresh off the last two chapters of the Pusher trilogy, his cult-favorite crime saga about the Copenhagen drug scene, Refn brings the same stripped-down, pulpy aesthetic to Bronson — at least when he isn't taking his cues from A Clockwork Orange. Just as Stanley Kubrick's version of anti-hero Alex jauntily terrorized his victims to the tune of "Singin' in the Rain," Refn makes Peterson the star of his own performance art piece, inviting his imagined (and crisply dressed) audience to enjoy his bloody exploits. As played with gleefully sinister elan by Tom Hardy — who reportedly added 100 pounds of muscle for the role — Peterson spins his life into a gripping yarn that casts him as a wronged man, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Like some perverse twist on "prison of the mind" melodramas like The Shawshank Redemption, Refn contends that prison is liberating to Peterson — in his words, "a place where I could sharpen my tools." He may look like a caged animal, but the instinct to strike anyone within pummeling distance doesn't arise from deep-seated frustration or resentment of authority; he just enjoys doing it, especially when it pads his resume as England's premier outlaw. In the brief period of his release from jail — he'll return again 69 days later, after a robbery and assault — the real world makes him uncertain and soft.

Though Refn goes too far in casting Peterson as a creative artist whose canvasses are streaked with blood, Bronson has a boldness of vision that the man himself would surely appreciate. Unlike Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, his charisma doesn't forgive or relieve his monstrousness so much as make it pop with Technicolor vibrancy. He's neither victim nor hero, but a man who, in every conceivable sense, belongs behind bars.

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