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Loosely based on his autobiography written from behind bars, Chopper is the story of legendary Australian criminal Mark "Chopper" Read who garnered fame with his claim that he had killed up to seventeen people.
Andrew Dominik’s screenplay adaptation is wonderfully colorful and peppered with Aussie colloquialisms, while also being naturalistically brutal and raw. It is the type of story that pulls no punches and hits you in the face like a locomotive.
Dominik directs the film with unflinching depictions of violence—certainly vicious, but never glorifying it for its own sake. There are some very jarring, but hugely original scenes in the film that are handled with confidence. For example, in a scene where “Chopper” is repeatedly stabbed with a shank by his closest prisons mates, he just stands and takes it one cut a time, calmly asking his buddies why it has to come to this.
The strength of Dominik’s direction is certainly seen in Eric Bana’s performance, but is also largely due to the fact that he does not seem to condone or condemn the protagonist. Rather, he simply presents a man who is not simple to define in traditional terms and who has a personality larger than life.
The film’s cinematography, by Geoffrey Hall and Kevin Hayward, is a very docudrama style, giving it the feeling and weight of real life unfolding into tragic and destructive ends. With a lot of handheld camera work and simple lighting schemes, the photography really pulls you in so you feel like you are along for this crazy ride, come hell or high water.
The driving force of Chopper is certainly its leading man, Eric Bana (Munich). As the silver screen's take on Mark Read, Bana delivers a career-defining tour-de-force performance. It’s a fine jagged line he walks throughout the movie, being genuinely charming, but completely amoral and easily prone to animalistic violence. Bana plays “Chopper” with relish, giving him multifaceted dimension and a sense of humanity. He is at times sweetly kind and jovial, the kind of guy who might entertain everyone at a Sunday barbeque before burning the whole neighborhood down. As if with a simple flip of a light switch, he explodes, unleashing merciless pain all around him. He is a man smart and clever enough not to be a criminal, but too driven by an almost insatiable need to wreak havoc not to be. Whether in moments of extreme prison fighting or mocking the legal system as he acts as his own lawyer, Chopper loves every moment in the limelight.
Bana’s performance doesn’t take the easy way out by making him easily repulsive. There is both vanity and sadness in his portrayal with constantly changing facial expressions—never quite sure where that shoe will drop, from moment to moment. It is truly a fascinating character played with a super-charged style and painful truth.
Simon Lyndon and Kenny Graham turn in solid supporting performances as Chopper’s long time friend/betrayer and his overly abusive father, respectively.
Chopper is far from an easy viewing and not for the Disney crowd sensibility, but is a truly unique film that is not easily shaken off once it’s seen.