Charles Bronson is Britain’s most dangerous prisoner. No, not the badass American actor of Death Wish fame. Charles Bronson is the nickname of Michael Peterson, a criminal incarcerated in the British penal system for the past 34 years — 30 of which have been spent in solitary confinement. Though relatively unknown in the U.S., Bronson is a cult hero across the pond. Why? Bronson the film attempts to explain, detailing the turns that led a middle-class youth to become a larger-than-life figure bent on wanton violence and absolute chaos, all with an underpinning of dark humor.
Petty crime lands the violent loose cannon in prison in early adulthood. Instead of becoming constricted, Bronson thrives, honing his skills as a ruthless fighter. Isolated from society, he becomes an anti-establishment nihilist, corrupting reality via nonstop battles with guards and fellow convicts, riots, hostage-taking and other melees. That he does so while singing show tunes and nurturing artistic talents reveals a cunning, smart mind behind the madness. A sociopath? Perhaps — but one that you can’t take your eyes off.
Dutch filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy) tackles this incredible figure with an exaggerated manner that rivals the namesake’s eccentricities. No mere biopic, Bronson is a fever dream that shifts between Bronson’s bone-breaking life and the world in his head, where the hulking, muscular, bald Brit with a handlebar mustache is a clown-faced star holding stage with song and soliloquy. Visually, the film mirrors this dichotomy, shifting from stark, claustrophobic realism to highly stylized, colorful set pieces.
But this flair is nothing without a strong anchor. Tom Hardy fills the shoes with amazing precision. Bulking up massively for the role, Hardy plays Bronson as a force of nature — uncontrollable, unpredictable and brutal. Conversely, he’s also calm, articulate, sincere, emotional and incredibly funny. The range reveals humanity inside the machine, an element that makes Bronson all the more frightening. Grade: A