Chopper Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 2 DVD release of Chopper

Chopper is the authorised biopic of Mark “Chopper” Read, who is apparently second only to the old iron buckethead himself, Ned Kelly, in Australia’s popular folk villain demonology. A career criminal turned best-selling author, his popularity seems to stem from the same roots as that of the Kray twins on the other side of the world: though it’s never made clear what he thought of his mother, it nonetheless seems that he specialised in only doing his own kind, “doing” in this instance frequently involving chopping off their toes, which gave him his nickname.

Writer-director Andrew Dominik stages his film in two halves, the first showing Chopper dealing with prison life in a decidedly idiosyncratic way (cutting off his own ears to gain a transfer, for instance), the second showing him coping with the equal challenges posed by the outside world. The film alternates between gritty documentary realism and hyperstylised fantasy, with a bracing (and peculiarly “Australian”) vein of black comedy running throughout – much like Quentin Tarantino’s films, it’s alternately shocking and hilarious, as Chopper launches a vicious attack on a fellow inmate and then, as his victim is literally weltering in his gore, takes pity on him and offers him a cigarette.

Eric Bana’s title-role performance is truly astonishing – and I reached that verdict before I saw footage of the man he was portraying, after which I added the words “and uncannily accurate”. He’s in almost every frame of the film, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off him: by turns funny, confident, piteous, terrifying, compelling and repulsive, he’s completely unpredictable, whether he’s barely reacting to a multiple stabbing attempt or casually getting his cock out in the middle of a crowded bar in order to attract attention.

Bana is overwhelmingly the reason to see Chopper, at least for non-Australians unfamiliar with his life story, because there’s little contextualisation in the film itself, and a first-time viewer may well be left decidedly ambivalent, if not thoroughly confused. Dominik spends so much time focusing on Chopper that great swathes of important information are left unexplained – we know little or nothing about the people that he kills, so when he becomes some kind of media folk hero (this isn’t a spoiler, as the film kicks off with an interview emphasising this) we don’t know whether it’s because the media are as uninformed as we are but like a good story or because they sincerely believed that Chopper’s victims deserved to die.

Chopper has apparently written more than one book about his colourful life and career, and the film at times feels like an overly sketchy précis – just the highlights, with little real insight into what makes its subject tick. Dominik and Bana score plenty of brownie points for refusing to romanticise or even justify Chopper’s more extreme cases of sociopathic behaviour, but the lack of context is frustrating. We know there’s a contract out on him, for instance, but we don’t really know why: it could be anything from heavy-duty crimes against the criminal fraternity to a well-aimed insult. Crucially, there’s nothing to explain his psychotic episodes, and while it’s arguable that an over-elaborate explanation might have worked against it, telling us nothing at all is less than helpful, as it means that we never really get to understand him as a human being. And that, especially given Bana’s multifaceted performance, does the film a disservice.

Still, for all that, it’s one hell of a rollercoaster ride, and manages to pull off some extraordinary scenes on what was obviously a very limited budget. It’s certainly the best film of its kind I’ve seen since Man Bites Dog and Natural Born Killers – and its real-life roots give it an edge lacking in those two more overtly satirical pieces. Although it’s often just as funny (Chopper has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments), it’s also rather more provocative and unsettling, not least if watched with the knowledge that the real Chopper Read has seen the film and has given it his seal of approval. Even when you’ve watched the film and explored the DVD extras, the chances are you still won’t quite know what to make of him, and this ambiguity can be a strength or a weakness depending on your point of view.

There’s not a lot to say about the DVD picture and sound – the transfer is excellent: pin-sharp, anamorphic and does a great job of reproducing the film’s distinctive colour scheme, where locations are often dominated by a single strong hue: red, green, blue. The image is a tad soft, but I get the feeling this is down to the original material rather than the transfer, as the (very slight) picture grain is very well defined. The print is effectively in perfect condition – I couldn’t spot a single blemish, and neither is there any obvious digital artefacting. All in all, it’s very hard to pick any nits here – any peculiarities (the bleached-out lighting, for instance) are down to the film’s idiosyncratic visual style.

The soundtrack can be either Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0, though as it’s an overwhelmingly dialogue-based film the distinction has more to do with the background ambience. As with the picture, though, the transfer is hard to fault – the mix is particularly impressive in the early scenes in the prison, where intelligent use of directional surround speakers creates a powerful impression of Chopper’s incarceration. There are 22 chapter stops, which is more than acceptable for a 90-minute film – though some may be annoyed at the absence of subtitles, which would have been a welcome addition to a film that doesn’t exactly tone down the broad Aussie vernacular.

There aren’t many extras in terms of quantity, but they score full marks for quality – they were all well worth including, and are especially valuable to non-Australian viewers who might not have known anything about Chopper Read before seeing the film. Least of these is the theatrical trailer, though this is still well worth seeing, as this film is not what you might call an easy sell. Praise is also due to the witty animated menus, which suit both the visual and verbal style of the film to a T.

A set of five deleted scenes is superbly presented – not only do they all have an optional commentary by Andrew Dominik in which he explains why they were cut, but they’re also topped and tailed with the beginnings and ends of scenes in the actual film, to show where the deleted scenes would have appeared.

Things start getting seriously interesting with ‘At Home with Chopper’, which is a video shot in the home of the real Chopper Read when Dominik and Bana went round to visit him so that the latter could gain some tips on how to portray him on screen. Most of this is in the form of a series of separately indexed motormouth interviews with Read which reveal just how accurate Bana’s portrayal is (though they also reveal that Read’s own ears really were more or less totally sliced off, something the film downplays, probably on the grounds of technical difficulty). As one would expect, these vignettes are both very very funny (he’d have no problem establishing himself as a stand-up comedian if things ever got straitened in the financial department) and decidedly unnerving.

Last, but most certainly not least, there are two commentaries, and they’re both well worth a listen as they’re very different. Andrew Dominik’s track is a good, solid director’s commentary – a little dry at times, but it does an excellent job of filling in the background (especially for non-Aussies unfamiliar with the story) as well as justifying some of the more extreme material. I’d recommend listening to this one first as a context-setter, though the real meat (in every sense) is on the second track.

This is delivered by Chopper Read himself, and by its very nature can’t help but be both riveting and intensely disturbing – as much on account of who he is as what he says. He’s not the first person to record a commentary for his own biopic, as Jim Lovell did something similar for Apollo 13 – but Lovell wasn’t a psychotic murderer reminiscing about his own real-life crimes. A closer equivalent would be a Psycho commentary by Ed Gein or a Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer commentary by Henry Lee Lucas – but it’s unlikely either of those famously reclusive gentlemen would be quite as witty, articulate, laugh-out-loud funny and just plain sick as Read is here.

There’s something weirdly compelling about watching something unspeakable on screen and hearing the voice of the man who committed (or was subjected to) the same atrocity in real life, explaining what it felt like (“This is where Quentin Tarantino fucks up in his Reservoir Dogs film, because when you cut someone’s ears off they don’t stop bleeding – blood everywhere. I don’t think Mr Tarantino will take offence at this, because I am an authority on the topic – I cut my ears off before anyone had heard of Quentin Tarantino. He should have contacted me for technical advice!”) – and it’s more than a little creepy, because his delivery is so laid-back and reasonable, albeit laced with jet-black humour (“This character is a mixture of about 63 different people – though I’m not saying I killed 63 people.”). This is not, to put it mildly, recommended for the faint-hearted – but then again, the chances are they wouldn’t be watching a film like Chopper in the first place.

All in all, this is an excellent DVD – indeed, far ahead of expectations, given that I haven’t been overwhelmingly impressed by Metrodome releases in the past (Sex: The Annabel Chong Story and a dreadful pan-and-scan Perdita Durango). The film provides a rare and gratifying example of a seemingly played-out genre getting a much-needed jolt of electricity, and the extras are notably intelligent and relevant for a UK-label release. If this is a sign that British independent DVD distributors are getting more clued-up as to what their rivals on the other side of the Atlantic have achieved over the last couple of years, it’s more than welcome.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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