||Style is the saving grace of "Chopper," a brightly impressionistic portrait of a notorious Australian criminal who transformed himself into a national celebrity through a series of quasi-autobiographical books. Extremely violent, colorful (with blood-reds naturally dominating) and strikingly shot and edited, the picture avoids the slightest hint of moralizing; indeed, many will see it as a glorification of a murderous, if charismatic, thug For others, though, Andrew Dominik's film will be worth seeing simply as a flamboyant cinematic exercise that explores the possibilities of the medium in ways you won't have experienced before.
It also boasts a performance of frightening ferocity by Eric Bana as Mark Read, who claims to have earned his eponymous nickname by killing from nineteen to twenty-five people--though Read points out that all were criminals who in effect deserved what they got. (Of course, as the picture quotes him also saying, "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.") Bana, a stand-up comic who undergoes an astonishing physical transformation between playing Chopper as a relatively thin, clean-shaven young man and showing him in far chubbier older age, complete with mustache, captures beautifully the character's mixture of casual brutality, easygoing charm and peculiar loyalty. As written and performed by Bana, Read isn't a mindlessly vicious brute; he adheres to a code of honor--one that a viewer might find appalling and ruthless, to be sure, but a code nonetheless--and he certainly proves more clever and likable than his enemies.
Many people, of course, will see that as exactly what's wrong with Domink's take on his subject, which--though it hardly depicts Read as a shining knight--mostly picks and chooses possibilities that show his loonily courageous, defiantly outrageous side. This isn't a biographical piece in the strictest sense; it doesn't tell us much about Read's upbringing, or even show the vast majority of his crimes. Instead the picture begins in prison, where "Chopper" dispatches a rival con almost nonchalantly and then, after he's targeted for assassination at the hands of his best buddy, disfigures himself horribly to get transferred elsewhere. Then the script switches to his post- prison phase, during which he socks his prostitute girlfriend, stabs a drug-dealer, and offs a petty crook who's setting him up for death, all the while fooling the cops who think he's their stoolie. The film ends with Read back in prison, but chortling with the guards over the celebrity he's achieved via a television interview.
Bana's isn't the only performance that gives the film interest. Simon Lyndon is nearly as impressive as Jimmy Loughan, Read's buddy who's enticed into turning on him; a scene between the two men toward the end, when Read visits the dissipated Loughnan's flat, conveys a sharp combination of menace and camaraderie. Vince Colosimo is also memorable as a drug dealer whom Chopper brutalizes not once, but twice.
"Chopper" is certainly a picture that marches to its own beat, and from the technical perspective it's an amazingly vibrant, vivid piece of work that bodes well for future efforts from its writer-director. It's definitely not for the squeamish, however, and its non-judgmental tack will be morally troubling to many viewers.