[box cover]

Chopper

One of the great thrills of cinema is that the audience gets to vicariously experience things they normally wouldn't want or get to do. From Peckinpah's dusty wild bunch to Hannibal Lecter, several of our greatest cinematic icons have dark intents — something Alfred Hitchcock understood implicitly when he surveyed the dangers of voyeurism in Rear Window. As the audience (Hitch would call us "voyeurs"), we really love watching the baddies weave their web of crime and deceit. But even if we want them — for us — to succeed, we also want them to be punished. And that's why Andrew Dominik's Chopper (2000) is such a fascinating movie. Though at times it's disturbingly violent and grotesque (this one is not for the squeamish), it's entirely compelling because Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read is a real person, a sociopath with a gift for storytelling — offering not only a fascinating portrait of a bad guy, but of a baddie who knows you like hearing his violent stories, and a baddie who may or may not be pulling your leg. Eric Bana stars as "Chopper" Read in a story that follows the events of Read's life from 1978 to 1986, as taken from his autobiographical books (including No Tears for a Tough Guy and How to Shoot Friends and Influence People ). Beginning from his Australian prison cell in 1991 as Read watches himself being interviewed on television, the film takes a self-reflective journey through the liveliest stories of his life: In 1978, Read's in jail for kidnapping a judge in an attempt to help his drug-addled pal Jimmy (Simon Lyndon), but when he kills a tough guy to gain prison turf, Read becomes a wanted man. Fearing that he'll be killed by his fellow inmates, he's stabbed by Jimmy before earning a transfer by slicing off his own ears (the act that got him his descriptive nickname). Chopper then cuts to 1986, where Read is out of the joint and working as a rat for the cops, but also trying to re-integrate himself to life in Australia outside of prison. But, due to his prison background — and his own emotional instability — Read can't get along with anybody, in particular Neville Bartos (Vince Colosimo), a drug dealer whom Read shot before going to prison, and old girlfriend Tanya (Kate Beahan), who is now a prostitute. Read also is pretty sure that junked-up Jimmy, on the street and perhaps working for Neville, wants him dead. He weaves through all their worlds, and though he can be a friendly, loquacious fellow — a pretty smart cookie, in fact — at times he just snaps. And when "Chopper" snaps, people get hurt. Badly.

*          *          *

In prison and being stabbed by his best friend Jimmy, "Chopper" Read remains calm and instructs in an even tone, "If you keep stabbing me, you're going to kill me." It's these oft-kilter moments than make Chopper so fascinating despite its subject-matter — as the film is entirely an account of Read's life by himself (and he's a born exaggerator if there ever was one), we can't be entirely sure how much of what's on screen is true. And yet, while we may remain unsure, we get a strong portrait of Read's manic depression, a condition that means he can stab someone repeatedly, ten seconds later apologize for it and offer legal advice, and then hours later deny that he had anything to do with it — and all with equal sincerity. Read enjoys being an outlaw figure, one romanticized by popular fiction, and it is that personality that anchors the film. He seems completely divorced from himself, but simultaneously his existence is meaningless without an audience. In a way it echoes the Kris Kristofferson lyric in Taxi Driver about Travis Bickle being "Partly truth and partly fiction / A walking contradiction." But Bickle is imaginary, an invention of cinema. Read is a real person, and it is for the viewer to sort through his tall tales. If nothing else, Chopper is a calling card for star Eric Bana, who gives a breakout performance the likes of which hasn't been seen since fellow Aussie Russell Crowe appeared in Romper Stomper (1992), and it's no surprise that Bana has since been cast in high-profile Hollywood projects (including as Bruce Banner in Ang Lee's The Incredible Hulk). Dominik's direction is similar to that of Danny Boyle — it's all very well lit and there's quite of bit of flash behind the camera, but such a technique only heightens our distrust of Read. With a score by Mick Harvey (of both The Birthday Party and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds), Chopper is a journey through insanity from a guy who knows what we want to hear — and who readily admits that he would "never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn." Image's DVD release of Chopper is fully loaded — the film is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with audio in DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 Surround. The lack of subtitles may cause difficulty for some viewers, but on board are two commentary tracks, one by director Dominik, who is informative and has a deep understanding of his material, and the second by "Chopper" Read himself, who seems to go along with most of the events as fact. Also included are five deleted scenes, the theatrical trailer, and a 17-minute documentary on Read meeting Eric Bana and — surprise — telling some stories. Keep-case.
—DSH



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