A monstrous, transformative performance from Eric Bana headlines the ultra-violent, darkly comedic and impressively stylish true Aussie crime yarn Chopper.
At the beginning of Chopper, there is a caption that reads “This is not a biography”. And after watching this sensationalised piece of Australian crime history, it is easy to see why such a statement was warranted.
Based on the criminal exploits of notorious Melbourne hit man Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read, Chopper – much like many other biographies – merges fact with fiction. Some characters are amalgams, others did not exist at all, but the actions of its monstrous subject are very real. At least, that’s what he says.
You see there are many ways to describe Mark Brandon Read: charismatic, brutally violent, extremely paranoid and possessing a strong yet twisted moral centre. But above all, he is a great storyteller who has created an almost mythical name for himself throughout the criminal underworld.
Chopper begins in 1978 with Read in prison for attempting to abduct a judge. It is during that time Read cut off the outer rims of his ears ensuring him infamy within the crime community, with his reputation as an unpredictable and absolutely dangerous crim enhanced to epic heights during the 80s when the heavily tattooed, handlebar moustached hit-man handed out his own brand of justice towards the criminals he once associated with, especially drug dealers.
Since that time Read has ravished in the notoriety his criminal escapades have earned him, with this film the highlight in his bid for Australia’s most popular criminal outside of infamous bushranger Ned Kelly.
Celebrity is one of many ideas which writer/director Andrew Dominick focuses on in this biopic which is not a biopic. Regardless of the credibility of Read’s exploits, Dominick has crafted a film that plunges his audience into the depths of Australia's criminal underworld. It is a harsh, twisted world full of brutal violence (the ear cutting scene in particular is not for the squeamish), killers and junkies who brandish firearms in front of their children.
Dominick uses a lot of different lighting and colour schemes throughout the film. The use of green, yellow, red and especially blue – as seen during the prison sequences – all create a great sense of atmosphere while not distracting the viewer from what is on screen.
In the title role, Eric Bana gives a funny, frightening, engaging and all around exceptional performance. Widely known in Australia at the time through his sketch show work and stand up routines, Bana was a surprising choice who more than meets the challenge in portraying such a grandiose figure, most notably gorging on a month long fast food diet to obtain the bloated figure as seen in the characters days in the 1980’s. In short, it is one of the greatest dramatic turns by a comedian.
Throughout Chopper there is a disturbing, sadistic humour that comes from Read which repulses but also amuses. It serves a purpose since not only is Read a man of schizophrenic violence, but he is also a man of high comedic value, Dominick impressively presenting both madman and mad-clown of the Australian criminal underworld.
In the end all a man has is his legacy, and while Chopper the movie will be remembered as one of the greats in Australian cinema, Chopper the killer, thief, extortionist, arsonist and kidnapper will forever be known as one of our great criminal scumbags.