Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence, Pervasive Language, some Drug Use and Nudity
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Written by: Andrew Dominik
(based on the books by Mark “Chopper” Read)
Starring: Eric Bana, Vince Colosimo, Simon Lyndon, David Field & Kate Beahan
If nothing else, Mark “Chopper” Read is a one-of-a-kind character. This notorious Australian criminal spent half of his life behind bars at a young age, managed to get a dozen contracts out on his head, and was, without a shadow of a doubt, certifiably insane. This flick named after Chopper, directed by Andrew Dominik (who later went on to adapt KILLING THEM SOFTLY), isn’t a straight biopic. Instead of following a plot, CHOPPER focuses on capturing the essence of who “Chopper” Read with style, brutality and a smart-ass attitude. This approach has its positive qualities and a couple of sizeable negative traits that could potentially keep one from fully enjoying the film for what it is.
Chopper’s life and various incidents (at least, according to his books) are seen through three separate decades. In the 70’s, we are shown “Chopper” spending hard time in the infamous H Division of Pentridge Prison. During the 80’s, we see his release from prison, newfound freedom, and returning criminal attitude. This all makes its way to the 90’s, where he gives a somewhat famous interview as a media sensation. It might sound like I’ve given away a majority of the plot, but that’s not true seeing as this movie is driven by dialogue heavy scenes and style rather than anything resembling a concrete story. It’s a prime example of style over substance, but there’s definitely something to be enjoyed from watching a character who’s downright bonkers.
Eric Bana’s performance is the main draw for watching this film. He gained a hefty amount of weight for his role as “Chopper” and was specifically requested for the role by the actual Chopper himself. Bringing to life the utter insanity of this person, Bana completely disappears into “Chopper” Read. There’s some natural charisma to be gained from his harsh honesty and smart-ass mannerisms, but genuine frights seen in his violent actions and lunatic decisions (the real Chopper forced a naïve news reporter into an improvised game of Russian Roulette). While the rest of the cast falls by the wayside, there’s a ton of hugely entertaining style in CHOPPER. When the protagonist is high on cocaine, the film speeds up the current scene to fully engulf the viewer in this Australian nutjob’s mindset. There’s an equal amount of dark humor and disturbing content that create Chopper as a cheerful sociopath (if such a combination exists).
However, there’s a big problem with CHOPPER that was too difficult for me to overlook. The movie is sorely in need of a plot with a beginning, middle or end. There’s a title card that plainly states this is not a biopic, but the real life of Chopper is such an interesting one that the viewer can’t help but wish this were a straight-forward biopic. By throwing the viewer immediately into Chopper’s prison sentence, we only receive vague details about why he was thrown into the prison to begin with. There’s little effort made in showing what Chopper was truly capable of, which is needed in a film revolving around him (biopic or not). The narrative seems unfocused in jumping through three decades of time without many of Chopper’s crimes viewed on-screen. To be specific, this man was charged with armed robbery, assault, arson, impersonating a police officer and kidnapping (as well as torturing some of the victims). It would be nice to see some of that in a movie about this lunatic.
If you had no clue who “Chopper” Read was and then watched this movie, you would probably still have to look him up to get basic details of his life. Biopic or not, this is a problem. The style, a twisted sense of humor, and an excellent performance from Eric Bana are definite positives to come out of CHOPPER, but an unfocused herky-jerky narrative kills momentum. The decision to keep things vague forces viewers to know the basic outline of Chopper’s life before watching this actual film inspired by him. The end result winds up as a decent flick that could have been so much better.