Cult Film Review: Chopper
Before he made 2007’s hypnotic, underrated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and 2012’s divisive Killing Them Softly, New Zeal born director Andrew Dominick made his name with 2000’s Chopper, a true crime biopic about the life, in and after prison, of Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read. Chopper is a notoriously scary, and unreliable, man who has been in and out of prisons for violent crimes, written numerous books, and earned stripes in prison for convincing a fellow inmate to do something unpleasant to his ears (just so he could exit to the infirmary). He’s a fascinating man, and Chopper is a mostly fascinating film.
The plot is divided into two major sections: Chopper (Eric Bana)’s life in prison, where he makes a name for himself before being turned on by his cell mates, and his life after prison, a haze of drugs, sex, threats and gun violence. The first half is better than the second by a wide margin; a cold, bloody take on prison life that ranks up there as one of the harshest, most realistic takes on prison life in cinematic history.
It also features some absolutely shocking jolts of violence to rival any slasher film. Early on, Chopper shivs one of the top dogs in the prison (“You kill people for no reason” is first said by the dying convict, and echoed throughout), and later gets attacked by his cell mates, in a chillingly casual and relaxed scene. However, the winner of the most horrific use of gore is the infamous ‘ear’ scene. The most brutal treatment of an ear onscreen since Reservoir Dogs, I won’t spoil the content of the scene, but be warned; it really is stomach churning stuff.
A film like Chopper depends almost entirely on the central performance, and a miscast could easily prove fatal. The biggest compliment I can give to Eric Bana, a former stand up comedian who now has a fairly successful Hollywood career, is that it is essentially impossible for him to ever be this good again. He gives a pitch perfect performance as Read, using his comedic sensibilities to show Chopper’s more sardonic, brash side, and a completely unpredictable intensity to show (as if it wasn’t clear enough) that Mark is almost completely off his rocker. Putting on a lot of bulk for the role, Bana is at times unrecognisable, and it only helps him to further sink into the role.
Sadly, Chopper, like the titular man, lets itself down towards the end. It’s still as blackly comic, and never dull, bit the product feels somewhat diluted, and not half as sharp in the script. Perhaps the story itself becomes less interesting, or the script has said all it can, but in the final twenty minutes, you won’t feel nearly as entertained.
The closest counterpart to Chopper in the UK is 2008 drama Bronson, starring a rabid Tom Hardy, but even then, they are totally different beasts. Bronson, whilst featuring a stunning lead performance from Tom Hardy, concerns itself with weird visuals and to-the-camera monologues (it was a great showcase for future Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn), while Chopper is a far more straightforward flick. Focusing squarely on Chopper and his various flashes of violence, Dominick’s film is a livewire, unpredictable character study that is so entertaining in its first hour, it can only disappoint in its final act.
By Harry Ford