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Australia 2000
Directed by
Andrew Dominik
94 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars


Synopsis: Real-life criminal Mark Brandon Read began his underworld career in Melbourne in the 1970's and in and out of prison for the next two decades achieved a certain media notoriety as a stand-over man of unusually violent tendencies. Read went onto to document his exploits, the subject of this film, in a best-selling autobiography.

The critical plaudits for writer/director Andrew Dominik's first feature have been unrestrained, unquestionably deserved and also quite uniform, praising its crackling energy and Eric Bana's intense performance. This is a credit to all concerned and principally to Dominik whose artistic control is so rigorous as to produce a film in which all elements are so skilfully-fused into his single minded vision.

Although basing his screenplay on Chopper's own undoubtedly self-mythicising account of his exploits. Dominik in turn takes further "narrative liberties" (as a disclaimer warns us at the beginning of the film) in order to deliver a seamless flow of events that span two decades. This decision shifts the film away from the documentary to the fantastic. In Dominik's hands Chopper approaches a god-like status, so different from ordinary flesh and blood that he can be stabbed multiple times without losing his self-possession or sit calmly whilst having his ears mutilated with a razor-blade.

There appears to be a good deal of truth in this however. References to contemporary newspapers show that Chopper's indifference to the constraints of ordinary mortals, be they physical or social, were the subject of considerable fascination at the time and earned him a grisly reputation to which he in turn played up. Not that Chopper was just a wannabe gangster acting tough. There is no doubt that that he was a dangerously violent individual whose sociopathic behaviour outraged even his criminal peers. Whilst this approach to the criminal-hero is typically American, Chopper (the character and the film) remain distinctly Australian. Almost too much so. Looked at benignly (which is Read's own approach), Chopper is just another Aussie larrikin, one who admittedly did a bit of damage, but not to anyone who didn't deserve it. You've got to laugh. Hmm...well, not really. Chopper's treatment of his girlfriend (Kate Beahan) is truly scary.

Whilst Dominik's direction is masterful at achieving a sense of realism, Eric Bana's performance as Read is what gives the film such intensity. A former comedian/entertainer who can be seen in the ABC's early evening rural soap "Something in the Air", this is his first major role. Untrammelled by habit or gimmickry, Bana's performance as the unbalanced barbaric buffoon who could swing from genial wise-cracking to blind rage in seconds is extraordinary and leaves us in no doubt that much as the film claims not to be a biography, we have seen the real Chopper Read. For that matter, all the performances are remarkably convincing. Of course the downside in films such as this, and one that for me always devalues them, is that the protagonists are an unpalatable lot and their lives a one-note samba of rancorous hostility. In this mire however, Dominik has found an unusually gifted, albeit also damaged, character. It is to the director's credit that he never sentimentalizes or moralizes over his protagonist's life.

Chopper is a remarkably skilful and mature film.

FYI: If you enjoyed this film, Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson (2008) should please.




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