WDirector Andrew Dominik made a brilliant debut with this superb 2000 true crime drama, now in re-release. But in terms of sheer impact on star birth, Dominic had nothing to do with the breakthrough that the leading man he’d found, former TV comic Eric Bana, gave the big-screen performance of his life and after lousy anti-charm and black smelled comical charisma.
Bana plays Mark “Chopper” Read, the notoriously violent and misogynistic Melbourne criminal on whose unreliable but best-selling memoir the film is based. We see him in prison in the late ’70s, grinning, giggling and monologizing with uncanny fearlessness; First he launches a brutal attack on rival tough guy Keithy George (David Field) in the prison dressing room, then snarlingly informs his submissive lieutenant Jimmy Loughnan (Simon Lyndon) that he intends to siege the entire prison by attacking some guards.
Rather than engage in this insane plot, Jimmy attempts to assassinate Chopper with a knife, but his victim withstands the attack with near-superhuman strength, cutting off his own ears to enter a secluded wing and successfully defending himself Court against the charge that he was the one who attacked Jimmy first, and then as soon as he was released from prison his fear and casual hatred of women explodes and he uses his status as an informant with the local police force to do so claim he has carte blanche to attack bad guys with the blessing of the police. It’s an arrangement that leads to non-stop chaotic chaos, fueled by Chopper’s coke-fuelled paranoia.
Bana is simply gorgeous, both as the clean-shaven young moon-faced sociopath we first meet and as the chubby headbanger with gold teeth and mustache that he morphs into. In every scene—cell, courtroom, seedy club, variety shows flat—Bana effortlessly holds your attention and often gets big laughs. It’s a performance that could be compared to Joe Pesci in GoodFellas, and in fact significantly better than Tom Hardy’s performance as the comparable British convict Charles Bronson in 2008’s Nicolas Winding Refns Bronson, who certainly drew inspiration from Chopper.
As for Bana himself, I said at the time that if he could speak an American accent, he was ready. And that happened… somehow. Chopper was the dilithium crystal that fueled the 20+ year career in film and television starring Eric Bana as a perfectly plausible lead in straight roles; some are interesting but not like choppers. I don’t think anything they’ve done can match the poisonous thrills and hideous laugh they had as a creepy prankster and monstrous non-charm. But why hasn’t Bana, obviously a great comedian, turned more to comedy on screen? Did he think comedy was something he’d outgrown? Did he want to avoid chopper/larrikin typecasting? Maybe – and maybe the roles weren’t there for him. A few years ago, Bana hinted at a return to standup — but still nothing. But there is still time.
Well, who cares? Chopper is a great movie. I’m still laughing when Chopper is completely unconcerned about the first stabbing he gets in jail and only gently inquires, “Bit early in the morning for kung fu, isn’t it?” There’s his dismissal of Keithy’s blood-spattered agony: “Whinge, whinge, fuckin’ whinge.” And then his haughty refusal to turn on his friend Jimmy for stabbing him — out of loyalty: “If your mother had stabbed you, you wouldn’t be upset…”