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Too smart/arty for the slasher set, and too violent for high-brows, "Bronson" may have a tough time finding its niche, although it has "cult hit" written all over it.

Michael Petersen/Charles Bronson - Tom Hardy Uncle Jack - Hugh Ross Allison - Juliet Oldfield Prison Governor - Jonny Phillips Phil - James Lance

Gleeful brutality and intellectual mischief have become the bloodstained calling cards of Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn, whose “Pusher” trilogy cultivated a fanboy base that will follow him blindly into “Bronson” — a huge leap for the director — and a disturbing, innovative bio-pic about England’s most notorious prison inmate. Too smart/arty for the slasher set, and too violent for high-brows, “Bronson” may have a tough time finding its niche, although it has “cult hit” written all over it.

Charles Bronson, born Michael Petersen, is a singular phenomenon: As a young man he was arrested for armed robbery, and his 7-year sentence has grown into 34 years in prison, 30 in solitary confinement — all due to his seemingly joyous commitment to bringing mayhem to the correctional system. A worldwide petition is in circulation to free Bronson (he was renamed by his boxing manager), based on the fact that he has spent so long behind bars without ever having killed, raped or molested anyone. Whether anyone will want to see him freed after “Bronson” is another story.

Portrayed by a transcendent Tom Hardy, who apparently gained 100 pounds of muscle to play the part, Refn’s Bronson is both dangerous and puckish. He addresses the camera directly, shot from slightly below with an austere dignity, or onstage at an English music hall, where he occasionally wears clown paint while telling his audience a tale of rage and resolve. Refn, as expected, mines as much drollery out of Bronson and his situation as possible without ever relieving the tension that this human explosive device generates.

“My parents were decent upstanding members of society,” he tells us; not so young Michael, who is stealing and fighting before he can shave. Michael wants to be the best at something — to be admired. He may be a casualty of the celebrity age, or he may just be creative. “Prison was finally the place where I could sharpen my tools,” he says. And perfect his art, which is the art of war.

“Bronson” is beautiful — d.p. Larry Smith does stellar work — and Hardy’s performance is outstanding, especially considering he’s playing multiple parts: There’s the war-painted, hell-raising Bronson who dives lustily into herds of prison “screws” and nearly beats them down. There’s the briefly out-of-prison Bronson who, deprived of his natural habitat, becomes meek, vulnerable and, for a moment, the awkward lover to the faithless Allison (Juliet Oldfield). It’s not just that he can’t function. He’s almost invisible.

When Bronson reunites with his Uncle Jack (Hugh Ross), who runs a brothel/salon for cross-dressers, the film starts to flag, because you realize at that point there’s been no story: It’s all been set-up, atmosphere and character building, without any narrative momentum.

But Refn gets back on the bike and starts telling what he means to tell about Bronson, and his art. The director doesn’t explain Bronson so much as use him as a mirror for viewers who would probably like to act out against the frustrations of life by putting someone’s head through a wall. Bronson is therapeutic and strangely calming, probably because his brand of nonstop fury seems absolutely exhausting.

For all the prankishness of “Bronson,” and its bloody violence, Refn and co-writer Brock Norman Brock have an agenda. If Bronson is insane, then why does he enrage people so? And what does society do with someone whose art is violence?

In the film’s best extended scene, a prison art teacher, Phil (James Lance) manages to get inside Bronson, whom he believes has an artistic gift. Bronson lets down his guard momentarily, offering a painting to the prison governor (Jonny Phillips) and is rebuffed. So he takes Phil hostage, paints himself in grease and charcoal and goes back to battling the screws.

Production values are excellent, notably the sound design of Christian Conrad and the work of his colleagues Tim Barker and Dominik Schleier.

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Production: A Vertigo Films presentation, in association with Aramid Entertainment, Str8jacket Creations and EM Media, of a Vertigo Films/4D Films production. Produced by Rupert Preston, Danny Hansford. Executive producers, Allan Niblo, James Richardson, Nick Love, Rob Morgan, Simon Fawcett, Suzanne Alizart, Kate Ogborn, Paul Martin, Thor Sigurjonsson. Co-producer, Jane Hooks. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Screenplay, Refn, Brock Norman Brock.

Crew: Camera (color), Larry Smith; editor, Mat Newman; music supervisor, Lol Hammond; production designer, Adrian Smith; art director, Janey Levick; costume designer, Sian Jenkins; sound (Dolby Digital), Tim Barker; supervising sound editor, Dominik Schleier; stunt coordinator, Julian Spencer; assistant director, Jamie MacDermott; casting, Des Hamilton. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema -- competing), Jan. 20, 2009. Running time: 92 MIN.

Cast: Michael Petersen/Charles Bronson - Tom Hardy Uncle Jack - Hugh Ross Allison - Juliet Oldfield Prison Governor - Jonny Phillips Phil - James Lance

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