Friday April 13, 2001

     In the first scene of "Chopper," based on the exploits of real-life Australian ex-con Mark Brandon Read, a newcomer to Melbourne's Pentridge Prison is told by a highly territorial, ferocious-looking older con not to step over a certain line in a common area. The newcomer, who turns out to be Chopper (Eric Bana), then matter-of-factly fatally stabs the guy in the neck. In no time, Chopper's pals Jimmy (Simon Lyndon) and Bluey (Dan Wyllie), incarcerated with him, are plotting Chopper's downfall out of sheer self-preservation.
     Yet Chopper is no ordinary thug, and "Chopper" is no ordinary movie. You can't quite get a bead on Chopper, a burly, tattooed and scarred young man who is bright, articulate and mercurial in the extreme. He is dangerous and unhesitatingly quick to resort to violence, yet often seems filled with regret at his actions. Or maybe it is all a put-on. It's tempting to label him a psychopath or sociopath, but he keeps you guessing, not because of any displays of remorse, feigned or otherwise, but because of his freewheeling absurdist sense of humor. No doubt about it, the guy has charisma, a gift of gab and even a tender side. He's the kind of character who seems compelling on screen but is so volatile and paranoid you'd be foolhardy to want to cross paths with him in real life.
     In time, Chopper is released from prison, and tells himself, even though he is filled with vengeance, that he just wants to settle down and live a quiet life, which is not his hard-living, prostitute girlfriend's idea of fun. He may really believe that's what he wants, but he already has become a media celebrity, known for his outrageous, outsized personality.
     At this point, writer-director Andrew Dominik shrewdly invites the audience to look at Chopper as one would a gunfighter of the Old West who wants to retire but encounters some guy itching to make a name for himself by taking on such a legend. What Chopper does is what many a famed frontier figure did: Polish that legend to the max. During his next long stretch in prison, Chopper starts writing his memoirs, claiming to have killed 19 men, for openers. His exaggerated exploits turn him into a best-selling author of nine books, a cult figure presenting himself as Australia's No. 1 hit man, ridding the streets of dastardly miscreants in secret collusion with the cops. "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," advises Chopper, whose titles include "How to Shoot Friends and Influence People."
     It was the real-life Chopper, who at last report was living on a farm in Tasmania, who chose celebrated stand-up comedian Eric Bana to play him. Born in Melbourne to a German mother and a Croatian father, Bana has a ferocious wit, energy and tremendous physical presence, yet suggests vulnerability. His dark, expressive eyes are crucial in expressing Chopper's ever-changing, always-impassioned emotions. Lyndon as the drug-doomed Jimmy, Vince Colosimo as an early victim and subsequent underworld adversary and Kate Beaham as Chopper's flashy erstwhile girlfriend make vivid impressions in strong counterpoint to Bana's overwhelming personality.
     "Chopper" is a most ambitious first film. Dominik pulls it off impressively, assisted by a selfless cast, a driving score by Mick Harvey, and gifted cameramen Kevin Hayward and Geoffrey Hall, who aptly capture the mood and tempo of Chopper's frenetic existence amid seedy, garish locales and stark prison interiors. Dominik doesn't glamorize or glorify Chopper, but his film contributes to making Mark Brandon Read as mythical an Australian rogue as Ned Kelly.


Chopper, 2001. Unrated. A First Look Pictures and Image Entertainment presentation in association with the Australian Film Finance Corp. and Mushroom Pictures. Writer-director Andrew Dominik. Based on books by Mark Brandon Read. Producer Michele Bennett. Executive producers Al Clark, Martin Fabinyi. Cinematographers Kevin Hayward, Geoffrey Hall. Editor Ken Sallows. Music Greg Apps. Costumes Terry Ryan. Production designer Paddy Reardon. Art director Jeff Thorp. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Eric Bana as Chopper (Mark Brandon Read). Simon Lyndon as Jimmy Loughnan. Vince Colosimo as Neville Bartos. Kate Beaham as Tanya.