Since 1975, Michael Peterson, later dubbed Charles Bronson after the “Death Wish” star, has been England’s most explosively unstable and notorious inmate. Initially incarcerated for seven years after a botched armed robbery, Bronson has added decades to his sentence (spending 30 out of 34 years in solitary confinement) with an avaricious proclivity for introducing mayhem into the systematic and demoralizing flow of prison life. His many nasty habits include taking hostages, assaulting prison guards, savaging fellow inmates, destroying property, conducting rooftop protests, and apparently being naked–a lot.
Nicolas Winding Refn, the man behind the “Pusher” trilogy, adeptly directs the script he co-wrote with Brock Norman Brock, and presents a highly stylized, bloodstained spectacle that’s as volatile as its titular character.
Tom Hardy, who you may remember as the scrawny Praetor Shinzon from 2002′s “Star Trek: Nemesis,” has undergone a remarkable transformation having added 100 pounds of muscle to his frame. But even more astonishing than his physical mutation is his almost preternatural embodiment of the UK’s preeminent icon of infamy. Hardy’s performance, a vaudevillian onslaught of deranged brutality mingled with a curiously magnetic and oddly charming sensibility, is the higlight of the film.
Production values are exceptionally high (particularly the sound), and Larry Smith’s calculated work behind the camera recalls that of Stanley Kubrick. It was no surprise when I learned that Smith actually worked with the master himself on ”Barry Lyndon,” ”The Shining,” and the vastly underrated “Eyes Wide Shut.” The narrative, following a frustrated young man unable to express himself artistically without employing the old ultra-violence, may even lend itself to comparisons to 1971′s “A Clockwork Orange,” but visual style and loosely related subject matter are where the Kubrick comparisons end.
The nihilism, violence, mischief, gleeful savagery, and reckless abandon featured in “Orange” culminate in a scathing and poignant idictment of social determinsm. The same elements are reduced to nothing more than pure catharsis in “Bronson,” resulting in a stylistically brilliant, often entertaining, but intellectually and morally dour work of cinema. I suppose it’s unfair to compare it to one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed works of art, but ”Orange” provides the perfect counterpoint to expose the many flaws in Refn’s film.
Although “Bronson” encourages social dissonance, rails against criminal justice, attempts to lend a voice and credibility to the argument of art over life, and not only glorifies but revels in violence, it remains entirely watchable. Hardy’s performance is really that good.