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An ordinary bloke who likes a bit of torture
A region 2 DVD review of CHOPPER by Slarek
 

In his native Australia, Mark 'Chopper' Read is both a cultural phenomenon and a genuine oddity. He has spent much of his adult life behind bars for a variety of offences, including acts of violence against an unspecified number of Melbourne's criminal underworld. He continued to build a reputation for himself in jail, where his personal vendettas and acts of violence against other prisoners eventually bounced back on him, resulting in an assault that left him with a number of serious stab wounds, inflicted by someone he had regarded as his friend. He became marked man, in part for shopping his would-be assassin (who had accused Read of striking the first blow), and requested a transfer to another jail, which was flatly refused. Read's unconventional solution was to have his ears cut off by another inmate. He was, as he had predicted, transferred that very afternoon. As you might imagine, this is not a man you'd want to cross without good reason.

The media attention that the court case and assisted self-mutilation attracted was a sign of things to come, and on his eventual release from jail Chopper did not become a fully functioning member of society. He continued to dish out violence to his fellow criminals, even when he began informing for the police. Eventually he was banged up again for malicious injury and wilful damage, where he wrote the autobiographical book Chopper: From the Inside, which became a best-seller, despite Read's own claim that "I can't even bloody spell!"

Former music video director Andrew Dominik's first feature announces itself up front as "a dramatisation in which narrative liberties have been taken" and assures us that "it is not a biography." As it happens, it may well be a lot closer to the truth than this disclaimer suggests (the real reason for its inclusion is revealed in the extras below). It all depends on whose version of the truth you choose to accept, as in an inversion of the usual, Read has always claimed to have hurt and killed far more people than the police have been prepared to credit him for, and some of his fellow criminals have suggested that his tales have more to do with book sales than setting the record straight. It probably matters not. Chopper is still and intelligent, unsensational character study, one that refuses to pass judgement on the behaviour of its enigmatic central figure.

This does create an intriguing relationship between Read and the audience, one in which we are appalled by his actions and then charmed by his turn of phrase. He is, in spite of his behaviour, an undeniably engaging and always interesting character. A man of real wit and humour, he is also unpredictable, paranoid, and often contradictory, as when he stabs would-be prison daddy Keithy George in the throat, and as the man sits in a rapidly expanding pool of his own blood, asks him if he is OK and offers him a cigarette. Later he extorts money from a local drug lord by threatening and then wounding him, then begrudgingly drives the man to hospital. It is typical of the image-conscious Read that he happily admits to the shooting, but has repeatedly denied his subsequent actions, adding indignantly that "it defeats the purpose of me having shot him in the first place." Elsewhere the violence is more sobering, as when Read breaks into the house of his prostitute girlfriend and viciously beats her, and it is the threat of what he might do that makes a later meeting with his one-time assailant so horribly tense. Whether Chopper is a misdirected unfortunate, a publicity-seeking and insecure egomaniac, or an all-out nutter is left very much for the viewer to decide.

The film starts and ends with Chopper in jail, and the tale told between is a compelling one. Much is down to Dominik's confident handling, often calmly observant but occasionally taking a post-modernist detour to suggest a coked-up mindset or, in the film's riskiest stylistic move, recreate a key incident in speeded-up, straight-to-camera rhyme. He even has the nerve to run the opening credits over a montage of prison exteriors to the strains of 'Don't Fence Me In', something that should send the heads of all sensitive viewers into their hands, but somehow prompts a wry smile rather than despairing groans.*

But what really sells it is Eric Bana's superb performance as Read.** A successful stand-up and TV comic who had just moved into acting the year Chopper went into production, this was the role that made his name and set him on the road to Hollywood and starring roles in the likes of The Hulk and Munich. For my money this remains his most interesting role to date and his most complex and impressive performance. His complete immersion in the part is such that there will be a fair few who would not even recognise the actor they know from his later work, especially in the scenes following Chopper's release from prison, when Bana's month-long diet of junk food had expanded his fame by thirty pounds. He perfectly captures Chopper's almost schizophrenic personality, all smiles and upbeat vocal whines one moment and a ball of dangerous menace the next. It is Bana, ultimately, who makes Chopper so fascinating, at least as a movie character – he is one of many such creatures who you'll be happy to engage with and enjoy on the cinema screen, but who you would definitely not want to spend a week in a holiday chalet with.

Although very much a complete whole rather than a series of set-pieces, there are many scenes that stand out and are specifically memorable, none more so than Read's stabbing at the hands of his friend Jimmy. I swear I have never seen such a scene handled the way it is here. Wandering into the realms of the surreal and flirting with a sort of homoerotic intimacy, the sequence nonetheless feels strangely and disturbingly realistic, from the horrifically graphic nature of the wounds to Chopper's quietly confused reaction. And like the other violence in the film, the assault is neither glamorised or sensationalised – we see it for what it is, a very nasty, very destructive act, and one that ultimately does only harm to all.

Chopper may lack insight into just what made Read the way he was (a deliberate decision on the part of the director, as it turns out), but it's still as absorbing character study and a very fine crime drama with real bottle. While Bana has gone on to bigger things, it's a real shame that we've had to wait a ludicrous seven years for another film from director Dominik in the shape of the upcoming and enigmatically titled The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I, for one, and twitching with anticipation.

sound and vision

Framed 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this does at first glance look to be a flawed transfer, with colours a little drained and slight softness to the picture. But this would appear to be Dominik's music video eye at work, as this is exactly how the film looked in the cinema, and the transfer here is certainly faithful to that. In addition, a variety of colour tints used to create a particular atmosphere for each sequence, something that is a little more pronounced on the DVD transfer than it was on the big screen. Contrast levels are good throughout – there is very occasional evidence of grain and compression noise in areas of one colour, but this is very minor and never distracting.

Stereo and 5.1 surround tracks are both included, and here the 5.1 definitely has the upper hand – sound is crisply reproduced and there is good separation and a subtle use of back speakers in many scenes, especially those set in prison or the Bojangles club, really creating a sense of place.

extra features

A decent set of extras has been included on a DVD that doesn't announce itself as any sort of special edition.

On the main menu rather than in the special features is the trailer, which gives a good flavour of the film and has been decently transferred.

In the special features section there appear to be only four inclusions, but this is deceptive given the quality and depth of content here.

A Weekend with Chopper was shot Hi-8 by director Dominik during the two days he and Eric Bana spent with the real Mark 'Chopper' Read at his farm in Tasmania, and consists of six short sequences in which Read relates stories that helped shape scenes and character in the final film. The exception is the first sequence, Year 2000 (2:37), in which Read express his dismay that the film will take so long to make and release. The others – Ears (2:44), 60 Seconds (3;34), Pickin' Out Psycho (4:12), Middle Class Crims (1:37) and Spaghetti Marinara (0:55) – not only demonstrate just how disarmingly charismatic the real Read is, but also the sometimes uncanny accuracy of Bana's interpretation.

There are five deleted scenes, all non-anamorphic 1.85:1, the first three with optional director's commentary. All are fascinating for a differing reasons: Hooky the Cripple (3:26) starts with the real Chopper telling a story that is concluded by Bana playing him; The Billiard Ball (1:20) not only helps flesh out the character of Keithy George, the first of Chopper's in-film victims, but also gives an idea of what the film looked like before being colour-treated; Bluey in the Stabbing (3:26) showcases Dan Wyllie's extraordinary ability to vomit on cue; Don't Get into Any Trouble (0:55) expands on Chopper's relationship with his father; while Ghost (0:13) would have taken the film briefly into the area of experimental horror.

Next up is the screen-specific commentary with director Andrew Dominik. His delivery is less than animated, but he supplies a great deal of very interesting information on the production and the background to key scenes. Right at the start he intrigues by explaining that the aforementioned "It is not a biography" disclaimer was actually put there in case Read didn't like with the film, giving the filmmakers something to point at to help their claim that they had never intended to make a true-to-life biography. This sort of detail turns up throughout, and helps clarify not just gaps in the story, but Dominik's own reasoning behind many of the sequences, even if a few questions remain teasingly unanswered.

Finally we have what for me, when I first heard about it, seemed the most extraordinary extra or all, a screen-specific commentary by the real-life Mark 'Chopper' Read. To have a commentary track by the man whose life your film is based on is unusual enough, but a man with Read's past makes the decision a bold one. But it pays off. Read's comments are fascinating throughout, with a wealth of information (and at times probably dis-information) supplied about the facts behind the drama, in the process revealing more about Chopper's attitude, views and personality than any documentary could have. Occasionally it is also quietly disturbing, as with his offhand description of the way he employed or was victim to violence, and is also genuinely funny in places – my favourite comment comes during the notorious ear-slicing sequence – "I cut my ears off before anyone even heard of Quentin Tarantino." It is also left to Read to reveal that the film's director, Andrew Dominik, at the age of 8, lived on the same street as Read's father and knew him personally.

summary

Chopper was never going to appeal to everyone, but if you have a stomach for the violence – which through not frequent is certainly strong – then this is a remarkable and offbeat character study with a darkly comic edge that rewards several viewings. Add to that a really class collection of extras and the fact that the disc can nowadays be picked up for under a fiver on-line and you have a no-brainer – if you don't already have it, then track it down.



* Dominik apparently wanted Somewhere Over the Rainbow for this sequence, but its author Billy Thorpe strongly opposed its use in this context.

** It was the real-life Reid who suggested Bana for the role after seeing him in the TV comedy series Full Frontal.

Chopper

Australia 2000
90 mins
director
Andrew Dominik
starring
Eric Bana
Simon Lyndon
Vince Colosimo
David Field
Daniel Wyllie

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles .
none
extras
Andrew Dominik commentary
Mark 'Chopper' Read commentary
A Weekend with Chopper
Deleted scenes
Trailer
distributor
Metrodome (now Prism)
release date
14 October 2002
review posted
29 June 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews