Mark "Chopper" Read is one of Australia's best-selling authors, despite the fact that he's an imprisoned, "semi-illiterate" criminal who boasts, without regret, that he's committed 19 murders. So a movie which hypes him as a likeable anti-hero should surely be a reprehensible thing, right?
Well, sort of, but writer/director Andrew Dominik's debut is too clever to incite widespread moral outrage. As the brief text intro informs us, Chopper is a largely fictionalised version of events, chopping and changing the real-life chronology and inventing characters. Furthermore, Dominik's plot and characterisation ram home the idea that it's ridiculous how Read, as violent and inept as he is, achieved celebrity status. In fact, while making Chopper, Dominik felt obliged to warn the incarcerated crook that he might not be happy with how he's been portrayed.
This ridiculousness provides Chopper with its winning comic edge. True, based-on-fact brutality and comedy rarely work together. But the audience are cleverly wrong-footed, with no option but to laugh when, say, Chopper stabs someone in the neck in a fit of blind rage, then, when his head clears, apologises to his blood-spewing victim and offers him a ciggie. And how many big-screen criminals shoot someone, then help them into a car and drive them to the hospital? Talk about victim support.
But the script's strange sense of humour wouldn't b e half as effective without Aussie comedian Eric Bana, who makes Read convincingly fearsome (with the help of a pair of prosthetically ravaged lugs), inscrutably cuddly and self-loathingly sensitive all at once. Bana's on-screen presence perfectly replicates the real-life Read's inexplicable charisma, presenting him as the kind of person you'd buy a beer for if he wasn't such a semi-paranoid maniac who admits to "being a bit schizo or something". Indeed, anyone who is friendly to Chopper is perceived as a threat, especially after he's told that the Mafia ("those fucking fruit salesmen," as he calls them) have put a price on his head.
Yet it's not only the script and lead performance which make Chopper a stand-out. Director Dominik has a real visual flair, using cold blues for the prison scenes and vivid reds, yellows and greens in the outside world to capture Chopper's sense of overstimulation and disorientation. This, combined with a few other tricks (like a coke-snorting scene which fast-forwards the action while keeping the dialogue at normal speed), ensures that Dominik's debut will stand proud as one of the most original, powerful and uncomfortably comic crime flicks of the year.
With its black sense of humour and confident style, Chopper deserves to find an audience larger than the arthouse crowd. Director Dominik and actor Bana have created something more complex than your usual life-of-crime flick - and much funnier.