Once upon a time in England

Bronson's notorious subject inspires a star-making performance
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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Some roles wring from an actor something they never had before, or might again. Who now recalls Eric Bana's Aussie sketch comedian startlingly reinvented as bulked-up Chopper (2000), that native continent's most notorious psychotic extortionist-killer-jailbird-celebrity autobiographer? Bana killed — more vividly than in any part serving his subsequent, slightly bland Hollywood leading-hunk status.

Tom Hardy is another handsome bloke at risk of looking competent and versatile without fully impressing. Yet here comes Bronson, a film (and role) highly analogous to Chopper — offering up a dramatized "Man. Myth. Celebrity" (as per its ad line) of actual "worst prisoner in Britain." The real Michael Gordon Peterson, better known as "Charles Bronson" (a PR-minded friend fitted the Death Wish star as nom de notoriety), was an extreme anger-management case whose working-class struggle ended when he robbed a post office in 1974.

As the film details, prison spectacularly agreed with the then 22-year-old "Bronson." (At one point he was briefly released because his in-house mayhem was simply costing the government too much.) He enjoyed the tension and violence — between himself and fellow inmates as well as guards — so much that he got sent to a high-security psychiatric hospital. Worry not: even drugged to the gills, he managed to create ruckuses that won national attention. Shaved, tatted, and 'roided (OK, maybe it was just hard work) up for the part, Hardy has a field day.

This is the second English-language directing effort by Dane Nicolas Winding Refn, of the crime-drama Pusher trilogy starring the formidable Mads Mikkelsen. His next film, Valhalla Rising — again with Mikkelsen — is a Viking survivalist tone poem, less action-adventure than Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972).

Bronson is, by contrast, utterly revved up in a way that's showy but not at all dumbed-down. Hardy's prankster-rageaholic portrayal emerges amid several flavors: ironic Pulchinella à la contemporary music-theatre sensation Anthony Newley (Stop the World — I Want to Get Off); Tom of Finland bad-muscle-daddy fantasy (complete with nervously "gay" undercurrent); and adrenaline exercise of mainstreamed, po-mo directorial testosterone.

The frequently full-frontal Bronson (here definitely a shower, dunno about the growing) is a protagonist of scarifying ingeniousness and overpowering egocentrism. He's a diamond-polished metaphor — miscreant, clown-star, possible bipolar case, all that and less. But Refn's film itself is pure cinematic inspiration at least half-transcending even a case of snarkish homophobia (Bronson's most insidious foes are his most snarkily friendly) as you haven't seen since ... well, Chopper maybe?

The elements theatrically winking at themselves lowline a package whose self-conscious dazzle betters any Brit crime flick in decades — not at all excluding anything by that flash pony Guy Richie (whose forthcoming Arthur Conan Doyle desecration we will never speak of again). It's perhaps the most nastily great, stylish English gangster-type movie since Sexy Beast (2000) or Gangster No. 1 (2000), with an equally, heedlessly past-ordinary-pharmaceutical-help id as protagonist.

BRONSON opens Fri/30 in San Francisco.

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