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'Chopper': Tiptoeing Around a Butcher's Tale

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2001


    'Chopper' Eric Bana as Mark "Chopper" Read. (First Look)
"Chopper" is a style and a performance in search of a movie.

It's a great style, it's a fabulous performance, but it never quite finds what it's searching for.

A kind of subversive encomium to the alpha male, it's the story of Australia's most repulsive criminal, a violent, smart berserker named Mark Read, who went by the name "Chopper" after a certain adventure involving a bolt cutter and somebody's toes. Want more info? Ask Chopper. I'm afraid to.

Chopper is played by an Australian comedian named Eric Bana, who, it must be said, has it. I don't know what "it" is, but whatever "it" is, this guy has "it" to the brows, that mysterious, almost alchemic ability to dominate the screen. He's not especially handsome or especially ugly or especially anything. I doubt you'd notice him in a crowd. But there's some fierceness in him that the camera captures, like an aura or a penumbra picked up by a special lens. He makes you believe in the madness of this utter rotter.

Chopper's claim to fame, aside from the most exquisite prison-tattoo collection this side of the McAlester State Penitentiary, appears to be that he survived many murder attempts in prison, some with extraordinary disdain. After bloodily doing in an aborigine inmate – race war infects Australian lockups as well as American, the movie points out – a hit is ordered on him. When it comes, Chopper appears not quite to notice.

Again and again the assailant drives a shiv into his muscular body, through tattoo and hair, deep, reaching vital organs, releasing a red tide. Chopper simply looks at the fellow with amazement and then disappointment. Knife comes out. Goes in again. Chopper is almost amused that such a roach could aspire to killing him, the mighty Chopper, so he decides it would be uncool to defend himself. Knife goes in. Comes out again. It is repellent and hypnotic and a tribute to the pure animal vitality that always seems to nest in those of exaggerated aggression.

But I defy you to explain what sort of a criminal Chopper was. The movie never makes it clear. It finds him in prison and then follows him out of prison, where he seeks to go straight but keeps running into trouble. We never see him commit a crime in the sense of planning a caper for profit. He's not a drug merchant, a hit man, a strong-arm robber, a thug, a pickpocket, an extortionist. He seems to be in crime purely to survive its ordeals, like an existential quest; he wants people to try to kill him, and he wants to kill them instead.

His weakness is jealousy, and when a girlfriend, a prostitute, sleeps with someone else who doesn't have to pay, he goes nuts and begins a completely psycho hunt for revenge, though again you wonder: What's in this for him? How does this keep him alive?

Well, if it's short on career guidance for lawbreakers, the movie is at least a vivid evocation of the squalors of prison. The director, Andrew Dominik, has a firmer grasp of place than narrative, just as he has a better grip on incident than character. Somehow the movie feels more important and weightier than it turns out to be. With its desaturated color, it makes the prison experience seem not merely brutal and pointless but especially soul-destroying. But I kept thinking: Wasn't that the point?

"Chopper" (94 minutes) is unrated but features extreme violence, particularly that inflicted by knife.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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