Criminals simply don't come much more colorful than British baddie Charles Bronson; unfortunately, Nicolas Winding Refn's deliciously garish, expertly acted biopic doesn't really seem to do its attention-starved subject much justice (no pun intended). Compulsively watchable thanks to lead actor Tom Hardy's inspired performance and cinematographer Larry Smith's hyper-saturated color scheme, Refn's sixth feature as a director falls slightly flat in terms of pacing, and becomes a bit too repetitive to be genuinely compelling. And while the surreal narration scenes that find a costumed Bronson addressing a rapt theater audience are admittedly inspired (and certainly offer some insight into his character), they ultimately come off as more of a distraction than an asset, since watching our protagonist interact with his environment is more than entertaining enough to constitute a feature-length film.
For those unfamiliar with Bronson, here is his story in a nutshell: Born Michael Gordon Peterson in Luton, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom, on December 6, 1952, Bronson was, by all accounts, a fairly gentle, even-tempered teen. His parents had no criminal history, though it was shortly after the family relocated to Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, that young Michael began acting out. In 1974, he was sentenced to seven years' incarceration for the attempted armed robbery of a Little Sutton post office. Thanks to repeated crimes committed on the inside, however -- including the infliction of grievous bodily harm and threatening to kill, among others -- Michael's sentence would be repeatedly extended, earning him the reputation as the "most violent prisoner in Britain." Of his 34 years in prison, Bronson has spent approximately 30 of them in solitary confinement. Yet despite all this -- and the fact that he's served time in over 100 different prisons -- the temperamental inmate has never actually killed anyone. In 1987, during a brief stint as a bare-knuckle boxer in London, Peterson's name was changed to Charles Bronson by his fight promoter. In recent years, Bronson has turned to art as a creative outlet, and even released an autobiographical tome entitled Loonyology: In My Own Words.
Much like its closest cinema sibling, director Andrew Dominik's fascinating feature debut, Chopper, Bronson blends fact with fiction to offer a roguish, occasionally surreal account of the events that launched its protagonist to infamy. Also, much like Eric Bana's powerhouse performance in that film, Hardy's portrayal of a monster that could be considered misunderstood is precisely the kind of thing that could transform a workmanlike actor into a household name. Unfortunately it's there that the similarities between the two films end. Simply stated, a movie like Bronson needs something more than one ambitious performance and a dash of stylistic flourish to be truly successful, and since Refn and co-writer Brock Norman Brock's semi-experimental narrative is often more stifling than satisfying, there's not much to fall back on in terms of content. By indulging the character's quest for stardom to a fault, Refn and Brock indeed offer some fascinating insight into Bronson's delusions of grandeur and questionable motivations, though these scenes frequently come at moments when it may have been wiser to keep the momentum up rather than pausing to indulge the storytellers' creative whims. Even so, curious true crime fans will undoubtedly find Hardy's star-making turn in the lead role more than enough reason to give Bronson a fair shake, and if the rest of the elements don't necessarily add up, sometimes a single performance is more than enough to justify the cost of admission.
cast-crew for Bronson on AllMovie