Buried beneath the theatrical affectations, there's a great movie here screaming to get out. There's a luridly fascinating subject, a tour de force performance by leading man Thomas Hardy, but this real-life examination of "Britain's most violent prisoner" Michael Peterson (renamed Charles Bronson) struggles for significance.
Writer-director Nicolas Refn wants so desperately to make a new-millennium A Clockwork Orange that he pulls out every trick, gimmick and pantomime he can think of. From soliloquies delivered in clown makeup to a violent naked brawl set against classical music, to a gleeful dance with the mentally ill that features the Pet Shop Boys' ironic "It's a Sin," his portrait of this jolly madman is played as a violent vaudeville.
Too bad Refn's approach is so relentlessly shallow that it flatlines the drama and renders his bullet-headed brute a nihilistic cartoon. Peterson, who changed his name to Charles Bronson in homage to the Death Wish films, landed in prison at the tender age of 19 and went on to spend 34 of 56 years there, mostly in solitary confinement. He also published 11 books, won accolades for his poetry and paintings, and obsessively stayed hard-muscled and lethally fit.
Though many suffered savage beat-downs from this unrepentant hothead, who with his curled mustache looks like a maniacal circus strongman, Bronson proudly points out that he never killed anyone. "I have my principles," he says.
Unfortunately, we've no idea what those principles are. Is this ludicrously outsized psychopath a frustrated artist with no outlet for his creativity or just another celebritized criminal? Refn clearly wants to avoid the endless clichés about hardened but soulful convicts channeling their need for sensitive self-expression through rage. But by keeping Bronson an irredeemable cipher he offers us a Brit-accented take on Natural Born Killers.
It's Hardy's mesmerizingly animalistic performance that holds it all together. Transforming himself into a physically buff and emotionally blunt instrument of brutality, the actor portrays Bronson as an obsessive pugilist, ever in search of a fight ring. Prison isn't punishment; it's home, sweet, home. If only Refn had honored his ferocious, meticulously crafted character with a fraction of that complexity and insight.
Opens for a limited run on Friday, Nov. 20, at the Burton Theatre, 3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.