Chopper (2000, Australia) 94 min. Unrated
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Screenplay by Andrew Dominik and based on autobiographical books by Mark Brandon ‘’Chopper’’ Read
For those who liked this year’s earlier theatrical release of an Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) flick, Killing Them Softly, you should definitely watch his feature film debut, Chopper from 2000 with Eric Bana in the title role.
This film is about the life and times of Mark ‘’Chopper’’ Read (Eric Bana) an Australian criminal who spent most of his early life in prison. From age 20 to 38 he wasn’t locked up for only 13 months. He has been convicted of crimes including armed robbery, firearm offenses, assault, arson, impersonating a police officer and kidnapping. Fearsome criminal Chopper, a Melbourne standover man, is sentenced to 16 years and is doing time in the notorious H Division of maximum security Pentridge Prison for kidnapping a Supreme Court Judge in order to get his childhood friend Jimmy Loughnan out of the same prison. Of course at the beginning of the movie it is mentioned that it is not a biography but a half-truth story about Chopper’s life (presented to us as ‘’narrative liberty’’).
Eric Bana’s “Chopper”
The film unfolds with Chopper’s interview for television where he is treated like a celebrity; at times he is mugging for the camera, joking and spitting one-liners in the vein of an action movie. Then we see his life in Pentridge maximum security prison where he is, after killing in cold blood his mob connected opponent, stabbed by his own friend and cellmate Jimmy Loughnan (Simon Lyndon). After cutting off his ears so he could be transferred from there to a hospital thus avoiding being killed by other convicts (after a mob puts a $10,000 contract on his head), the film cuts to several years later where we see him out of prison and back on the streets of Melbourne.
His paranoid vision of the outside world dominates the story. He trusts no one and threatens to kill almost everyone – both his enemies and friends alike. Stories about Aussie criminals could be considered exotic as the rest of the world knows almost nothing, or little, about the Australian underworld and the feuds among their gangs (The 2010 film Animal Kingdom is one of the best intros into the Aussie underground…highly recommended). This is a character-driven film and the plot is relatively thin but that’s not so relevant in this case. This film gives you a true cinematic experience and world class, masterful acting from all the principal actors. The character of Chopper Read (played by astonishingly good Eric Bana) is so larger than life that you are literally nailed to the screen and to your chairs waiting to see what’s going to happen next (reminiscent of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson with Tom Hardy).
Bana has absolutely outdone himself and this particular role gave him the greatest recognition and path to stardom in Hollywood. The great thing about Eric Bana here is that at the time of filming he was not very well-known outside Australia and even there he was famous only as a stand-up comedian and not a serious character actor. Here, despite his previous roles, he is tough, serious, relentless and charismatic and gives us a boastful picture of a troubled hard man and hit man of Australia’s underworld. The director’s slightly desaturated image and camera style gives us bleak intro into the world of Chopper’s mind. In the first half of the film we see Chopper’s ‘’adventures’’ in prison and violent outbreaks followed by apologies to his victims: “Well! It’s embarrassin’! The latter part is his paranoia of the outside world after he is released from prison. ‘’Never let the truth get in the way of a good story’’ is Chopper’s motto so basically we are bound to believe everything he tells us.
What’s masterful about this film is that director/screenwriter Andrew Dominik managed to catch the conflicted nature of Chopper’s mind that is both violent and remorseful and stricken with conscience at the same time. Although it flourishes with style, its documentary-like camera approach gives a “mockumentary” feeling and tone to the film and shows us the directorial talent of Dominik, which is very much present throughout the movie.
It’s a great flick to see if not for the story itself but at least for the powerful performances from all principal actors and especially for Eric Bana.