Which is not to say that the central character isn't delighted by his own supposed carnage -- Australia's prime cut of criminal splendor Mark "Chopper" Read revels in his own self-deluding mythology. The smartest thing about writer-director Andrew Dominik's elliptical biopic is to acknowledge that ol' Chopper spins unrealistic tall tales about his bloody escapades. "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," he giggles. This notorious creep wrote a series of best-selling memoirs exploiting his tale of smashing the living piss out of his cellmates, fellow underworld denizens, floozy girlfriends, and whoever else was unlucky enough to get in his way. How much of it was fantasy is anyone's guess.
A friend was quick to point out that the recent film Blow falls into the trap of actually buying into the conceits of George Jung, envisioning himself as the tragic hero in his own life. Not so with Chopper. As charming and affable as stand-up comedian Eric Bana plays Mark Read, he'd never be conceived as someone to bring home to mum. He's the type who'll be sitting on your couch, drinking a beer, telling a joke, then out of nowhere he's got a gun pressed against your temple asking you to beg for mercy, and then he might put the gun away and say he's so sorry for making such an ass of himself. "It's embarrassin'!" With friends like him, who needs friends?
Chopper begins with the celebrity hooligan being interviewed for television, mugging for the camera and spinning a host of almost clever one-liners. It then switches to an extended sequence in prison where stabbings are such an order of the day that even the guys getting shivved barely flinch. "What're you doing?" is Read's annoyed response to getting knifed in the gullet. From there, we cut to a few years later after a heavily mustached Read, resembling German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is back on the street. He's glimpsed watching television with his old man, abusing his stripper girlfriend (who can barely keep a straight face while he's boxing her ears) and letting paranoia get the best of him as he threatens to kill all of his friends and enemies alike. Sure enough, we head into the inevitable Taxi Driver climax, abruptly followed by a nifty coda that shifts the film back into an appropriately incongruous perspective.
The mercurial and boyish Eric Bana thankfully never plays the title character as edgy or intense, a welcome relief from over-emoting tough guys who hit false notes of brute chic. Bana single handedly carries the movie through a torrent of excruciating slow spots. Once Chopper gets into the relentless cycle of Read's dead-end obsessive fury, it never finds a way out. What would have made for a hardcore 30-minute short is padded out into 94 minutes of "we get the point." It doesn't help that the stylized flash photography and bone-bleached saturation bring to mind the excess of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, never a good sign. One can see that if Dominik isn't careful, he'll be churning out gutter scum variations of 3000 Miles To Graceland in Tinseltown -- he shows the early warning signs of explosive content without penetrating insight. His collaborator Bana is already slumming as a "chopper" pilot (I kid you not!) in Ridley Scott's next debacle. Didn't take him long, did it?
Chopper is larger than life and twice as ugly, but it has the good taste not to play the gruesome bits for shock value -- even in the squirm inducing scene where a central character gets pieces of his ear sliced off. The camera doesn't shy away as in Reservoir Dogs, but it doesn't leer either. It simply places the viewer into Mark Read's troubled psyche, a place of false machismo and garbled fictions. Why shy away? If you can't take the heat, go indulge in the more superficial charms of Exit Wounds, where violence has no consequences.
As to whether Chopper or Exit Wounds is more damaging to our cinematic psyche, I suppose it all depends on your perspective. If you've taken the time to read this review, infer my response as you will. The outcome is never in doubt.
Chop shop, smoke shop.
Run time: 94 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 3rd August 2000
Distributed by: First Look Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Fresh: 47 Rotten: 19
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Andrew Dominik
Producer: Michele Bennett
Screenwriter: Andrew Dominik