"Chopper" isn't an easily classifiable film. Writer-director Andrew Dominik's debut is not a straight biography of its subject, notorious Australian criminal Mark "Chopper" Read. The sometimes brilliant pic is more a psychological study of a violently unstable and dangerous man whose mood swings and wicked sense of humor provide the film with an unsettling ability to provoke chuckles -- even during scenes of realistically portrayed violence.

“Chopper” isn’t an easily classifiable film. Writer-director Andrew Dominik’s debut is not a straight biography of its subject, notorious Australian criminal Mark “Chopper” Read. The sometimes brilliant pic is more a psychological study of a violently unstable and dangerous man whose mood swings and wicked sense of humor provide the film with an unsettling ability to provoke chuckles — even during scenes of realistically portrayed violence. All of this suggests a difficult commercial sell, but quality production, which boasts a terrific central performance, should have strong critical support, and will click with niche auds. Fest exposure will add to pic’s reputation, but it may prove too extreme for many TV programmers.

Eric Bana, best known in Oz as a comedian, is nothing short of sensational as the title character, a bestselling author who has spent 23 years in prison and whose crimes include kidnapping a judge at gunpoint and stabbing a fellow inmate, as well as shootings and arson.

Pic opens with a beefy, bearded Chopper in a prison cell, accompanied by two guards, appreciatively watching a TV show about his career. Confidently facing the camera, he proclaims that “drugs ruined the criminal world” and seems surprised that “humanity doesn’t like me.” “I’m just a normal bloke who likes a bit of torture,” he asserts with a charming smile as he flirts with the femme interviewer.

Pic is divided into two parts, the first set in 1978, the second eight years later. In the first seg, a slimmed-down, clean-shaven Chopper is in a maximum security cell with other hardened criminals, serving a 16-year sentence for kidnapping a judge who was trying his pal Jimmy Loughnan (Simon Lyndon). Jimmy shares the cell, as does hard-nosed gangster Keithy George (David Field), who conceals his bald spot with black boot polish and who aggressively needles Chopper. When Chopper unexpectedly and brutally stabs George in the neck, then solicitously asks the dying man if he’s all right and complains that the stabbing put his shoulder out, the off-kilter mood is set.

At the subsequent investigation, he cheerfully claims he didn’t see who did the stabbing, and his cell-mates back him up. But, having established himself as the toughest, most hardened criminal in the facility, Chopper is now a wanted man. He expects his victim’s buddies to come after him, but his would-be assassin turns out to be none other than Jimmy. Chopper recovers, and later forces a cell-mate to slice off his ears (a grisly scene), guaranteeing that he’ll be moved to another prison.

Pic then shifts forward in time, to when Chopper has served his sentence and is out on the streets, seeking revenge on his enemies and checking on his prostitute girlfriend, Tanya (Kate Beahan). Chopper has it in for wealthy drug dealer Neville Bartos (Vince Colosimo), but is chiefly interested in getting back at Jimmy, who is now a heroin addict living in a small apartment with his pregnant g.f. and a child. When he visits Jimmy with a concealed gun and presumably evil intent, Chopper relents when he sees his former pal’s modest circumstances.

Although the filmmakers claim that the real-life Read, now living in “retirement,” in no way participated in the project, he did suggest that Bana play him onscreen. A popular comic known for his expert impersonations (he appeared in the Miramax release “The Castle,”) Bana is extraordinary in the role, seamlessly combining the icy intensity and off-the-wall humor of the character. He put on weight for the later scenes, and plays the heavily tattooed and scarred gunman with shocking realism and, at the same time, a twinkle in his eye.

Bana is supported by a superior cast of character actors, with Colosimo especially good as the blustering Neville, who laces the drinking water of his guard dogs with cocaine. Excellent, too, is Lyndon as Chopper’s treacherous friend, and, in a brief but potent role, Field as the ill-fated Keithy. Kenny Graham has some good moments as Chopper’s admiring father.

Dominik, who hails from musicvideos, based his screenplay on Read’s nine books, the latest of which was published in May. Their titles include “How to Shoot Friends and Influence People” and “For the Term of His Unnatural Life.” The director has managed the difficult feat of making a nonlinear film that contains a handful of almost unbearably suspenseful sequences, each one undercut by bizarre black humor. He also experiments at times with the film form, inserting one striking sequence in which the characters begin to talk in rhyming couplets. Though often discomforting, “Chopper” is a rewarding film experience.

Harsh, low-key photography suits the mood. Technical credits are all slick, with the copious onscreen blood looking unusually convincing.

Chopper

Australia

Production

A Palace Films (Australia) release of an Australian Film Finance Corp./Mushroom Pictures presentation of a Pariah Films production. (International sales: Beyond Films, Sydney.) Produced by Michele Bennett. Co-producer, Michael Gudinski. Executive producers, Al Clark, Martin Fabinyi. Directed, written by Andrew Dominik.

Crew

Camera (Cinevex color), Geoffrey Hall, Kevin Hayward; editor, Ken Sallows; music, Mick Harvey; production designer, Paddy Reardon; art director, Jeff Thorp; costume designer, Terry Ryan; sound (Dolby digital), Frank Lipson; second unit director, Rowan Woods; line producer, Yvonne Collins; assistant director, Phil Jones; casting, Greg Apps. Reviewed at Soundfirm screening room, Fox Studios, Sydney, June 29, 2000. (In Edinburgh Film Festival.) Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Mark "Chopper" Read - Eric Bana Neville Bartos - Vince Colosimo Jimmy Loughnan - Simon Lyndon Tanya - Kate Beahan Keithy George - David Field Bluey - Dan Wyllie Detective Downey - Bill Young Keith Read - Kenny Graham Kevin Darcy - Gary Waddell Gov. Beasley - Fred Barker Sammy The Turk - Serge Liistro Detective Cooney - Peter Hardy TV Interviewer - Renee Brack TV Host - Terry Willesee

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