Film review by: Witney Seibold
Like his fictional progenitor Alex DeLarge before him, real-life British criminal Michael Peterson seems unable to commit acts of gentleness; he is driven by an instinctual, humorous, animal need to start fistfights, smash faces, break knees, and generally be as violent as he can be. He is not necessarily an angry fellow, often smiling his way through his fights. That he looks like a 1920s circus strongman – complete with bald head and comically large handlebar moustache – only adds to the surreal humor of his violence.
Peterson began life in an average middle-class family, but soon took to petty crimes. A 1974 theft at age 19 landed him in prison for seven years. He was so violent that he was eventually transferred to a mental hospital, but was transferred back after he tried to burn the place down. Upon his first release, he became a prize fighter and changed his name to Charles Bronson, after the actor. He became a sort of thug superstar, enjoying his infamy, and preferring life in prison. He ended up spending 34 years of his life in prison, 30 of them in solitary confinement.
The real Peterson/Bronson has seen this film, and is happy to have his myth perpetuated. He knows he is violent, and he’s not proud, but not ashamed. He has the dubious reputation of being Britain’s most violent prisoner.
Played by a beefed-up Tom Hardy (from “Star Trek: Nemesis”), Bronson has a crackling, cackling, bolstering, theatrical swagger unmatched by most human beings. Bronson lives a life of energetic, ecstatic violence, almost as if it were a form of performance art. Director Nicolas Winding Refn (of the “Pusher” series), indeed, intersperses throughout his film an imaginary stage production in which Bronson regales a high-society audience with the story of his life, complete with makeup and costume changes. Hardy’s performances in these scenes are a wonder to behold. I especially liked a conversation he had with a mental institution marm, with him speaking both parts.
While the stylized violence and over-energetic performances, “Bronson” occasionally skirts close to something that is wild, off-balance, and great. The film’s central problem, though, seems to come with its pacing. There are extended slow-burn talk sequences that, if placed in the middle of fast action would be utterly brilliant, but are nestled uncomfortable between other slow-moving slow-burn sequences that each feel like the climax of the film. By the time we get to the real climax (with Bronson once again fighting prison guards in the nude, as he liked to go Spartan), it’s hard to tell if we’re at the end or not.
Ultimately, “Bronson” is quite good, and very nearly excellent, but plays more like a curiosity. It is hard, however, to think of a character as indelible as good ol’ Charlie Bronson.