Starring: Tom Hardy, Matt King, Juliet Oldfield, Kelly Adams, Katy Barker, Edward Bennett-Coles. Rated R.
we’re young, we are told to stand up to bullies, to defend
ourselves against those who prey on the supposedly weak. They are the
real cowards, we are told, and once exposed, their true colors will be
The British criminal Charles Bronson, the subject of
director Nicolas Winding Refn’s strangely fascinating but somewhat
impenetrable new character study, isn’t a bully in the conventional
sense. He doesn’t taunt his victims; he simply pulverizes them,
sometimes with warning, sometimes without. He is remorseless, but
hardly emotionless – a study in unadulterated rage, and not a man to
provoke or engage.
For Refn, who co-wrote the screenplay with
Brock Norman Brock, Bronson’s unsuppressed anger is both a blessing and
a curse. The movie derives real potency from Tom Hardy’s spirited
performance; he is brilliantly exaggerated, a whirling dervish in the
lean body of a fighting machine, and he can be perversely charming when
he’s not bashing skulls. Hardy’s style suits the movie, which is
surreal in much the same way as A Clockwork Orange.
tone, despite its hallucinatory flourishes, is sometimes distressingly
one-note, precisely because of his unceasing rage. When we meet the
character, he’s a teenage boy rifling through pockets and pummeling his
teachers. As an adult, he’s no different – all bark with a ferocious
bite to match, a point hammered home early and too often.
his release from prison for violent crimes impossible to enumerate, the
movie picks up. Bronson doesn’t change, really, but his circumstances
do. He is recruited to be an underground fighter – at one point, in a
moment of appropriate symbolism, he's pitted against a rabid dog – and
no longer yearns for the familiar comfort of his prison cell, lovingly
referred to as his “hotel room.” He even meets a girl (Juliet
Oldfield), but Bronson, who renamed himself after the American Death Wish star, isn’t cut out for romance.
is whisked back to prison after a typically audacious robbery, and
that’s where he remains today. (A March parole bid for the real-life
criminal was denied.) Bronson prides himself on his reputation as
Britain’s most ruthless and expensive prisoner, and has spent much of
the past 35 years in solitary confinement, since he can’t resist
attacking his guards. He is an animal, and neither Refn nor Hardy seems
interested in exploring his motives. Bronson is who he is, and that is,
as he informs us with scary intensity, “nobody to fuck with.”
Where is the appeal in Bronson?
There is certainly little in the character, whom only Bronson’s doting
mother could love. But there is a lot to admire in Hardy’s performance.
It’s not exactly nuanced, but the actor brings a commanding presence to
the screen. He recently starred in Guy Ritchie’s violent RocknRolla, which should surprise no one who’s
seen Bronson, but he also played Bill Sikes in a 2007 TV production of Oliver Twist. His range is impressive, and he
makes Refn’s latest an arresting spectacle, if not a particularly enlightening one.