With this superb true-crime drama from 2000, now on re-release, director Andrew Dominik made a brilliant debut. But in terms of sheer star-birth impact, Dominik had nothing on the breakthrough made by the leading man he’d found, former TV comic Eric Bana who gave the big-screen performance of his life, reeking with lairy anti-charm and black comic charisma.
Bana plays Mark “Chopper” Read, the notoriously violent and misogynist Melbourne criminal on whose unreliable but bestselling memoirs the film is based. We see him in jail in the late 70s, grinning, giggling and monologuing with eerie lack of fear; first launching a savage attack on rival tough guy Keithy George (David Field) in the prison association room, then snarlingly informing his cringing lieutenant Jimmy Loughnan (Simon Lyndon) that he intends to put the whole prison under siege by attacking some warders.
Rather than get involved in this crazy scheme, Jimmy tries to murder Chopper with a knife, but his victim withstands the assault with almost superhuman strength, cuts his own ears off to get to a segregated wing, defends himself successfully in court against the charge that he was the one who attacked Jimmy first and then, once out of prison, his fear and casual loathing of women explodes and he uses his informant status with local police to claim he has carte-blanche to attack bad guys with the cops’ blessing. It’s an arrangement which leads to nonstop chaotic mayhem, fuelled by Chopper’s coke-addled paranoia.
Bana is simply superb, both as the clean-shaven moon-faced young sociopath we encounter first of all, and then as the chubbier, gold-toothed, moustachioed headbanger he turns into. In every scene – cell, courtroom, dodgy club, sordid flat – Bana holds your attention effortlessly, often getting big laughs. It’s a performance you could compare with Joe Pesci in GoodFellas, and actually appreciably better than Tom Hardy’s performance as the comparable British convict Charles Bronson in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson from 2008, which surely took some inspiration from Chopper.
As for Bana himself, I said at the time that if he could do an American accent, he was all set. And that happened … kind of. Chopper was the dilithium crystal that powered the 20-year-plus career in movies and television that Eric Bana has gone on to have as a perfectly plausible lead in straight roles; some are interesting, but not like Chopper. I don’t think anything he has done has matched the toxic thrills and the hideous laughs he got as the scary joker and monstrous non-charmer. But why hasn’t Bana, evidently a great comic, gone more into film comedy? Did he think that comedy was something he’d outgrown? Did he want to avoid Chopper/larrikin typecasting? Maybe – and maybe the roles haven’t been there for him. A few years back, Bana was hinting at a return to standup – but still nothing. There’s still time, though.
Well, who cares? Chopper is a great film. I still laugh when Chopper is utterly unconcerned at the first stabbing he receives in prison, merely inquiring mildly: “Bit early in the morning for kung fu, isn’t it?” There’s his dismissal of Keithy’s blood-splattered agony: “Whinge, whinge, fuckin’ whinge.” And then his lofty refusal to turn against his friend Jimmy for stabbing him – on grounds of loyalty: “If your mum stabbed you, you wouldn’t get upset …”