“Bronson” provides a hearty dose of British notoriety in the form of Michael Peterson — the fame-seeking prison inmate who renamed himself after the “Death Wish” star and, by attacking and kidnapping guards and others, turned a seven-year sentence for a botched armed robbery into a current 34 years in the pen, 30 in solitary confinement.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, the film gives exhilarating new form to the biopic. But the movie’s overall ability to satisfy will depend on the degree of deeper impact that you require with your surface bang.
Refn (the “Pusher” trilogy) has dumped the recipe book, locked into his subject’s general madness, and mixed fact and fabrication to create a stylized, colorful, comically charged art-house brutality circus.
It contains elements of “A Clockwork Orange,” hints of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and visual and dramatic elements wildly its own.
Looking iconic with his shaven head, twirled mustache and strongman’s body, “Charles Bronson” (Tom Hardy) tells his story to a music-hall audience in Refn’s framing device. His accounts alternate with artful vignettes illustrating his ascent and actions.
We see Bronson as the bad-seed son of decent parents and as a 19-year-old husband and father who saws off the end of a shotgun and bungles a post-office
In prison, Bronson finds his calling. Through vicious incidents that include taking a teacher (James Lance) hostage, he becomes known as Britain’s most violent inmate, a distinction he relishes.
Refn presents Bronson as an exceptional brute with a creative mind whose m.o. might be described as sadistic performance art.
As screenwriter (with Brock Norman Brock) and director, Refn depicts Bronson with impressive originality and visual style, making him compellingly watchable despite the cruelty.
Hardy (“RocknRolla”) gives a performance that ranks with Eric Bana’s Chopper and (well, almost) Ben Kingsley’s “Sexy Beast” devil, for sociopathic sizzle. He makes Bronson an electrifying force of animalism and warped charisma.
Ultimately, however, we don’t learn what drives Bronson.
Unless you consider the fictitious episode in which Bronson, briefly out of jail, experiences love, he doesn’t display the shades or evolution necessary to seriously invest us over the long haul.
The real-life “Bronson” has won awards for his art and reportedly hasn’t acted violently for years. The movie’s Bronson shows no such depth or growth.
In the end, the visage of Bronson will stick and Bronson’s behavior may perversely entertain, but don’t expect to be enlightened or moved.
Bronson (2 and half stars)
Starring Tom Hardy, Matt King, James Lance
Written by Brock Norman Brock, Nicolas Winding Refn
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Running time 1 hour 32 minutes