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This drama tells the real-life story of the infamous British prisoner Charles Bronson (not to be confused with the actor from the U.S. of the same name). Though Bronson was initially sentenced to seven years for burglary, his bad behavior--including attacking violently, taking hostages, and staging protests from the roof--has had him imprisoned for more than three decades, most of it in solitary confinement.
For more about Bronson and the Bronson Blu-ray release, see the Bronson Blu-ray Review
Starring: Tom Hardy, Hugh Ross, Juliet Oldfield, Jonny Phillips, James Lance, Amanda Burton
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
» See full cast & crew
Bronson Blu-ray Review
Or, Violence as Performance Art
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, February 9, 2010
He's a striking visage. We first meet Charles Bronson—no, not Death Wish Charles Bronson—against a pitch-black background. He's in his prison blues, a single light illuminating his surly face, characterized by an ever-present strongman mustache and eyes wild with some internal fire. "All my life," he says, "I wanted to be famous." And he is. The real Charles Bronson is known as "Britain's most violent prisoner." Originally busted on a burglary charge in 1974 and sentenced to a mere seven years in the slammer, Bronson's theatrically violent behavior led him to spend over 30 years in solitary confinement, where he remains to this day, writing poetry, publishing books, making bizarro "outsider" art, and developing a fitness regime for confined spaces while he awaits parole. Now, with the release of this biopic, Bronson's fame—well, infamy really—has crossed the Atlantic, where he's sure to attract a few new admirers and detractors. This is no conventional biography, though, as director Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy) shows almost zero interest in parsing Bronson's antisocial behavior or giving pat explanations rooted in childhood trauma. He lets the man remain an enigma, and Bronson is all the better for it, giving us viewers plenty of psychological gristle to chew on after we've finished watching the film.
Bronson's childhood and adolescence are covered with a briskness that's cursory but intentional. There are no hints to be found here besides the usual teenage angst. "I wasn't bad, I wasn't bad bad," says Bronson (Tom Hardy), "and I still had my principles." Of course, as No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh taught us, even homicidal maniacs can have principles. But where Chigurh's code of ethics flipped with the coin toss of fate, Bronson is a raging storm of self-determination. (And a sick part of me would pay good money to see the two go head to head.) When Bronson gets tossed into the clink for robbing a bank—absconding with only £26.18—he finds that he's well suited to prison life. The cellblock is his stage, the other inmates his cheering audience, the guards unwilling participants in his ballet of violence. "It was exciting," he says, "it was on the edge. It was madness at its very best!" He gets shuffled between penitentiaries, doped up at a mental institution, and starts a massive riot at a prison for the criminally insane. When he gets released—he's simply costing taxpayers too much money behind bars—he takes up with a seedy uncle (Hugh Ross) and starts fighting for an underground bareknuckle boxing promoter (Peep Show's Matt King, utterly brilliant). Unsurprisingly, though, it's back to jail—almost on purpose—where Bronson's antics morph into unexpectedly artful hostage-taking situations.
In one scene, the warden phones him while Bronson is holding a librarian captive. "What do you want?" the warden asks. Bronson juts his chin out and hilariously responds, "What have you got?" It's never exactly clear what he's after. An audience? A masochistic beatdown? The pure thrill of stripping down naked, greasing himself up, and taking on a battalion of billy club-swinging guards? He seems to live his life as if it were a performance piece for critics and cultural pundits to unsuccessfully dissect. Later, he paints himself black, ties up the prison's art instructor and turns the poor guy into a living sculpture, a cross between a Magritte painting—bowler hat and apple included—and a stuck pig. It's a moment of sheer manic genius, but director Nicholas Winding Refn isn't out to lionize Bronson or portray him as a mistreated, misunderstood savant. To a certain extent we sympathize with him—he's our protagonist, after all—but we're also just as perplexed as the prison officials. What do we make of this theatrical thug? What should be done with him? What's the proper societal response to such an unremorsefully violent narcissist? Some, like the Free Bronson campaigners, might hoist him up as a kind of existential hero—a true individual, unbound even in prison—but this kind of thinking is inevitably anarchic.
Just as inescapable are the comparisons to A Clockwork Orange. The ultraviolence, the individualistic anti-hero untamed by state control, the borderline ironic use of classical music; Bronson has been endlessly touted as a 21st century successor to Stanley Kubrick's dystopian satire. While the surface similarities are definitely there, the comparison doesn't really do Bronson any favors, as it really only burdens the film with unfair expectations. Kubrick and author Anthony Burgess were jabbing at very specific types of villainy, namely behavioral psychology, totalitarianism, and the minds-in-line brainwashing that can occur when the two join forces. Bronson, however, is a much more straightforward (but infinitely less pointed) affair, lacking any moral or social imperative. It's not a satire of the prison system, an examination of moral choice, or even a character study, per se; it simply tells us the story of a man whose mind is a seemingly unsolvable riddle. He charms us, but we never get to know him. All we see is his insatiable lust for fame, driven by an ethically backwards brand of ambition.
But this is enough for a compelling plot, and coupled with a black as a black eye sense of comedy, Bronson is one of the most unexpectedly entrancing films I've seen so far this year. For a film largely concerned with prison violence, Nicholas Winding Refn shows remarkable restraint, saddling the fence between exploitation and art-house oddity. The fights are gleefully operatic—set, at times, to actual arias—but the violence itself is never over-the-top or gruesome. (You'll see nothing as unsettling, for example, as A Clockwork Orange's deeply scarring rape scene.) Most of the credit for the film's success, however, has to be given to actor Tom Hardy (RocknRolla, Layer Cake), whose physical and mental transformation into Charles Bronson is a true feat. His performance occasionally calls to mind both Malcolm MacDowell's charismatic antagonism as cane-swinging hoodlum Alex DeLarge and—surprisingly—Daniel Day Lewis' arch, "I drink your milkshake" gravity in There Will Be Blood, but Hardy is his own dramatic beast, lunging through his scenes with a power that's somehow animalistic and aristocratic. You simply can't take your eyes off of him, which is the kind of allure that Bronson has always hoped to have. Not unexpectedly, when the real Charles Bronson was asked what he thought of Bronson, the movie—which he hasn't seen—he replied, "it is the greatest film ever made."
Bronson Blu-ray, Video Quality
No one's going to objectively claim that Bronson is a stunner in the PQ department, but the film's gritty, 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is a perfect match for the film, and likely looks just as intended. Filmed on both 16mm and 35mm—though the former seems more prevalent than the later—Bronson features varying levels of clarity, graininess, and noise over its 92-minute running time. It's not exactly sharp—not sharp sharp—but there's an appreciable amount of detail to be seen, especially in the few scenes where it's clear that cinematographer Larry Smith has switched to 35mm. Colors seem well-saturated throughout, from the sickly sea-foam greens of a mental asylum to plush mauve curtains and, of course, the red, red blood that flows after Bronson takes a beating from the prison guards. Where things get a bit uncertain, directorial intent-wise, is when it comes to the occasionally oppressive blacks and at times overheated whites. It's never to the point of distraction, but detail is sometimes lost in both highlights and shadows. Likewise, chroma noise peppers many of the darker scenes, adding flecks of blue to the otherwise deep blacks. That said, there's been no DNR here, and no halo-inducing edge enhancement. This isn't your average, glossy, new release image—there are even some white specks dotting the print—but it's a winning example of a film's visual style mirroring its thematic substance. Bronson fans should be pleased.
Bronson Blu-ray, Audio Quality
I quite like Bronson's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, which has a strong sense of presence, solid dynamics, and good acoustics. This isn't the most rip roaring, action-packed mix you'll hear this year, but it's good at what it does; namely, putting us into the often surreal world of Charles Bronson. Listen as he bellows "Please Release Me" after being chucked into a darkened cage. Hear the booming strains of a Pet Shop Boys song as asylum inmates do epileptic dancing at the makeshift rec-room disco. Be enraptured by the operatic arias that accompany the violence. In one of the film's more inspired sonic moments, Bronson's punches are represented not with the usual meatpacking thuds and whomps, but with laser beam sound effects straight out of a 1970s sci-fi film. The rear channels are frequently occupied with acoustic ambience, score, and other sounds, like the clinking of chains, distant thunder, and screaming prisoners. As for dialogue, I found it effortless to understand Bronson's monologues to the camera, but some of his in-prison diatribes—between the speed of his voice, the heaviness of his accent, and the natural reverb in his cell—prompted me to turn on the subtitles for clarification. Overall, though, this is a great mix that keeps all of its various elements nicely balanced.
Bronson Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Charles Bronson Monologues (SD, 17:16)
At the U.K. premiere of Bronson, a voice recording of the real Charles Bronson was played before the film, mystifying prison officials, who had no idea how the recording was made. I'm not sure if this is part of the same recording, but we hear Bronson ramble on and on in a kind of long-winded introduction for the film. It's quite taxing to listen to the whole thing, as the recording is very lo-fi and Bronson is quite hard to understand anyway, but it's an interesting inclusion. While our mustachioed sociopath is talking, we see stills from the film and behind-the-scenes photos.
Making of Bronson (SD, 15:22)
The usual "making of" documentary dryness is avoided here, as the featurette includes interviews with not only the director and cast members, but also friends and family of the real Charles Bronson. Plus, I did a double take when I saw Tom Hardy, who looks completely different with hair and without the strongman 'stache. What a transformation!
Training Tom Hardy (SD, 5:47)
Tom Hardy and his trainer Patrick Monroe talk about the intense 5-week weight gain and pushup regime used to get Tom into a brawler's physique.
Interviews (SD, 47:59)
Disappointed that there's no commentary track? Want to know everything you could ever need or want to know about the film? These interviews with co-director/director Nicholas winding Refn and actors Tom Hardy and Matt King have you covered. Things get a little slow at times, but there's a wealth of great one-sided conversation here for those who want to find out more about Bronson, the film and the man.
Behind the Scenes Footage (SD, 11:41)
Raw, completely unedited B-roll footage. Can someone elucidate for my why director Nicholas Winding Refn always has a blanket wrapped around his mid-section? I still can't figure it out.
Theatrical Trailer (1080p, 2:27)
I don't comment much on trailers, but this one totally sells the tone and intensity of the film. If you're on the fence about buying Bronson, track down the trailer online and go with your gut instinct.
Also from Magnolia Home Entertainment Blu-ray (1080p, 7:59 total)
Includes trailers for Ong Bak 2, Red Cliff, District 13: Ultimatum, and The Warlords, as well as a promo for HDNet.
Bronson Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
While not quite "the greatest film ever made," as the real Charles Bronson claims, and not even the second coming of A Clockwork Orange, as others have suggested, Bronson is a truly stunning biopic of Britain's most violent criminal. I watched the film with a few friends, and we were sucked into a conversation about it immediately after the credits rolled—always a good sign that a film is doing something right if it leaves you with something to talk about. The material definitely isn't for everyone, but like I said above, track down the trailer for the film; it's a perfect summation of what the film as a whole is like. Recommended.
Bronson Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Bronson Gets US Blu-ray Date - December 5, 2009
Magnolia Home Entertainment has set a February 9 date for the Blu-ray release of the British movie 'Bronson', based on the true story of Michael Peterson (a.k.a. "Charles Bronson"), one of the world's most dangerous prisoners. There is no information available ...
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