October 22, 2009 -- “Bronson” is the bizarre, based-on-fact story of England's most notorious prisoner, Charlie Bronson, AKA Michael Gordon Petersen. Sentenced to seven years for armed robbery as a young man, he ended up spending 34 years in prison, 30 of those years in solitary confinement. This film features an Oscar-worthy performance by Tom Hardy of “RocknRolla” as Bronson. Writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn uses some inventive theatrical interludes and soliloquies to diversify what might have otherwise been a rather one-note depiction of prison life.
Bronson is more than just a violent thug. He is also an artist and author, and an expert on keeping physically fit in confined spaces. In the theatrical interludes, Bronson appears as a clown and as an actor in a one-man show, playing not only himself, but prison and court authorities as well. It is a stunning performance by Tom Hardy. Bronson tries to hold down a steady job, but is clearly unsuited for that. He tries to become a petty thief, but is unsuited for that, as well. Bronson becomes a prisoner who is the bane of the entire British penal system. He is shipped from prison to prison, but nobody can handle him. He enjoys fighting with guards. A prison cell is like a hotel room to Bronson. He doesn't mind doing the time as long as he gets to fight with people. The other prisoners treat him like a hero. Prison seems to be where Bronson is happiest, but he sure doesn't fit in. He routinely holds guards hostage, making demands, repeatedly forcing violent confrontations he enjoys.
Next, Bronson is declared criminally insane and is sent to various hospitals for the criminally insane. He likes prisons but hates the hospitals, where he is drugged into a stupor. At one hospital, he leads an extremely destructive revolt by inmates. Since 1974 Bronson has been out of prison or hospital only a little over four months. During one period of freedom, Bronson became a bare-knuckle underground fighter, a vocation he was clearly suited for. In one scene, we see an disastrous attempt to teach Bronson the vocation of sewing. One wonders why nobody thought of teaching him a vocation more suitable to his temper and skills, like professional boxing or wrestling or freestyle fighting.
Bronson considers himself to be a man who isn't truly bad. The movie seems to support this view. While he may not be truly evil, he is certainly amoral, and has no regard for the law. During those rare times he is free, he takes what he wants, seeing nothing wrong with stealing or assaulting people who get in his way. He is a very violent man who enjoys beating people up and he doesn't seem to mind the pain of being beaten up by others. He seems to be like some mountain climbers or people who enjoy risking their lives in extreme sports. He gets a rush from the danger of fighting. He doesn't mind taking on superior numbers of opponents, even if they have superior weapons. In the film, Bronson says, “Prison was, honestly, brilliant. I liked it personally ... I loved it. It was exciting, on the edge. It was madness at its very best.”
While the movie is based on a true story, some scenes depart significantly from Bronson's real life story. The movie, for instance, makes no mention of Bronson's second marriage. Other statements made by Bronson indicate he doesn't enjoy prison, particularly solitary confinement, as much as he appears to in the film. It also doesn't mention his brief career as a circus strongman. There is no doubt, however, that the movie's portrayal of Bronson as a unique individual living on the farthest fringes of society is correct. This film rates a B.
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