REVIEW: Mad Mark; Aussie "Chopper" Dissects Fascinating Criminal Mind
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/ 04.11.01) -- What is it about these Australians? Is it the hole in the ozone layer directly above? That they're cut off from Western civilized society? Seems that every few years a coarse, bludgeon-headed, crude, and thoroughly refreshing movie comes up from Down Under. Add "Chopper" to a list that includes George Miller's "Mad Max," Stephen Elliot's "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and the little-seen (in this country) mind-game from 1998, Craig Monahan's "The Interview."
In adapting the life of psychopath-turned-bestselling author Mark "Chopper" Read, a true Australian social phenomenon not unlike O.J. Simpson in terms of public fascination/repulsion, writer-director Andrew Dominik graduates from Powerade commercials and music videos to walk a tightrope on several levels. The first is the curious dilemma faced by many adaptations of truly original but certainly unlikable real-life figures, most recently Ted Demme's "Blow." The director must celebrate the uniqueness of his/her subject -- it's the reason the film is being made, after all -- yet the filmmaker can't bestow honor upon or appear to approve of the character's actions.
And in Dominik's case, he has the extra wrinkle of trying to belittle his character's self-made status by portraying him as an ultimately unhappy, lonely figure. But that could be playing into this publicity-monger's hands (remember, Read wrote the book). Fortunately, the director has the services of the energetic mangy bear of an actor Eric Bana, who turns in a charismatic, larger-than-life seriocomic performance.
Mark "Chopper" Read is a bully with an inferiority complex, who was sent to prison in the 1970s when he tried to abduct a judge with a shotgun. In the slammer, he discovers within himself an instinctive need to be the most fearsome inmate in the asylum, yet is concerned about people liking him. When he stabs the prison's ringleader in the face, Chopper is immediately sorry -- not horrified at his own actions, but horrified about how he is perceived by his victim.
As the man lays bleeding, slumped in his own pool of blood, Chopper apologizes and offers the guy a cigarette, which is immediately thrown back at him. "You don't like me, do you mate?" he says. When his buddy Jimmy (Simon Lyndon) stabs him, he realizes that as long as he's in that particular prison he'll always be a marked man. So, to get transferred out, he convinces a fellow inmate to slice each of his ears in half. "You gotta keep moving forward," Chopper says at one point, "or you're gonna perish."
Eight years later, he's back on the streets, with a deformed head in both the physical and mental senses. No sooner is he back in circulation than he runs into his former enemy, Neville (Vince Colosimo), a man he gave a permanent limp to years before. Neville, who's a successful drug dealer, doesn't want Chopper in his hair, so he tries to show Chopper there's no hard feelings, buying him several drinks. Thing about Chopper is, he can't accept good will from other people. He thinks they're messing with his head. So what does he do? In the midst of making numerous apologies to Neville for hurting his leg, he becomes violent.
"Relax man, he's not your fucking enemy," one of Neville's henchman says. "Well, he fucking is now, isn't he?" Chopper shoots back.
A truly unique film with gunmetal-gray cinematography by Kevin Hayward and Geoffrey Hall, "Chopper" succeeds grandly on the strength of not just Dominik's "Trainspotting"-like energy but also his ability to surprise during scenes of dialogue and exposition. With Bana's brutish, pug-faced features softened by crinkled eyes -- a truly great performance -- "Chopper" becomes that rare movie, often talked about but hardly ever seen, that's actually unpredictable.
[G. Allen Johnson is a contributing critic to indieWIRE.]