Chopper is not just one of the best Aussie crime films of all time, but is also one of the best Australian films of all time regardless of genre. As a crime film though, it is not particularly large scale. There are no daring robberies or heists, and there are no shoot-outs with the coppers. But it is a film about criminals, and one of these criminals just happens to be Mark Brandon Read, known as ‘Chopper’ to all and sundry. Mark allegedly got the name Chopper from cutting off the toes of people who owed him money with a set of bolt-cutters – that’s not in the film, by the way. If you want to see some bolt-cutter action, you’ll have to go back to Bruce Beresford’s The Money Movers.
Prior to this films release, Chopper had been the author of nine books (since then he has written more including the children’s book, Hookey The Cripple). This film is loosely based on some of the episodes mentioned in Chopper’s books.
The film opens in Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison in the early 1970’s, and young Mark Brandon Read is already well versed in prison life. Gathered around him are two mates – his only mates, Jimmy Loughman (Simon Lyndon), and Blue (Daniel Wyllie). They are in the midst of a turf war inside the prison – a struggle to see who runs H-Block. On the other side are a bunch on crims under the control of the Painters and Dockers Union. The Painters and Dockers were a real union (since disbanded), but at the same time were corrupt and secretly ran organised crime in Melbourne at that time. The top man for the Dockers in Pentridge was Keithy George (David Field).
In a startling scene which has little buildup, Chopper rushes at Keithy and starts stabbing him in the face with a sharp implement. Keithy collapses on the floor in a pool of blood. Now this is where the film is very different to your average drama about criminals. This is not Goodfellas. Chopper ‘thinks’ very different to your average crime. Immediately after the attack, as Keithy writhes on the ground trying to stop a geyser of blood pissing out from his neck, Chopper approaches him – not to finish him off – but almost in the spirit of friendship. He holds out an olive branch to Keithy. ‘Are you alright?’ he asks. He even lights a cigarette and tosses it to Keithy. Of course the bloodied unionist is not so forgiving. But this strange sort of remorse or compassion for his victims makes Chopper a fascinating and unpredictable character. Sure he’s a vicious brute, but at the same time he cares about the people he is threatening. Later in the film he shoots a drug lord in the stomach, and then immediately drives him to the hospital for medical attention.
This strange, twisted duality is what gives the film its unique edge, and much of the films success on this level is do to with Eric Bana’s outstanding performance. Prior to this Bana was primarily known as a standup comedian and for his appearances on Full Frontal (an Australian sketch comedy series). Nobody expected this kind of performance from him. I guess his experience as a comedian trained him to be a good mimic and observer. He nails Chopper’s mannerisms and speech inflections. Not surprisingly, Bana won the AFI (Australian Film Institute) award for his performance.
Also collecting an AFI award in 2000 was director Andrew Dominik. Truth be told, Chopper is an episodic story, but Dominik handles the story threads and time changes masterfully. The film is essentially broken up in to two parts. The first concerns young Chopper and his life in Pentridge; and the second looks at Chopper’s life on the outside. Each section is filmed in very different ways. The prison scenes are almost mono-chromatic blue – cold and austere. The scenes outside prison, most filmed at night, are garish. It’s like it’s an amphetamine fueled trip through Melbourne’s seedy underbelly.
The supporting cast are top-notch too. Simon Lyndon’s portrayal of Jimmy Loughman, Chopper’s right hand man, is a thoughtful and well realised characterisation. These guys are not super-heroes – they are very flawed and damaged people. Loughman’s knife attack on Chopper has to be considered as one of the most astounding set-pieces put to film.
Vince Colosimo, who appears to have a monopoly on starring in Australian gangster flicks, plays Neville Bartos. Neville walks with a limp because Chopper shot him in the kneecap many years prior. But that’s all water under the bridge now, and Neville has become a successful drug dealer. I may have been a bit cheeky when I said Colosimo has a monopoly on gangster roles, because Chopper is the film that set it all rolling, and his portrayal of Neville kept him at the forefront of casting directors minds. Colosimo gets the work because he puts in good dependable performances – and Neville is no exception – ‘Mate’ I’m flying!’
I could, of course, talk about Chopper all day. It’s one of my favourite films of recent years, but in case my brief scene descriptions haven’t painted an accurate picture, let me say it is a violent film. It isn’t particularly gory, though there is a little bit of blood, but the sudden ferocious acts of violence are presented quite realistically. So if violent Aussie crime dramas don’t sound like your cup of cocoa, then I’d give this a miss. Everybody else, start queuing now, and track yourself down a copy and strap yourselves in for ninety minutes of quality, visceral cinema.