Bronson tells the strange story of a man who gained notoriety by becoming "England's most violent prisoner", as the press called him. It features a powerhouse performance from Tom Hardy (recently seen in RocknRolla) as Charlie Bronson, which the character changed his name to from Michael Gordon Peterson in an effort to bolster his tough guy credibility during a short-lived bare knuckle boxing career. Before Bronson turned being an inmate into a career after his first arrest in 1974 at the age of 22, he spent a little time working as a sideshow strongman. This fact isn't seen in the film, but bears mention. Bronson favours the prototypical strongman look: tattoos, shaved head, handlebar moustache, and massive frame (Hardy reportedly gained almost 100 pounds for the role). It's a distinct look and suited to a man who doesn't fit in anywhere in his life except one place - the British penal system.
Since his first arrest for armed robbery, which lead to a seven year sentence, Bronson has spent all but four years of his life to this day in prison as a result of crimes committed inside and out of jail. 30 of his 35 years of incarceration have been spent in solitary confinement, in dozens of facilities and institutions. Judges have ruled him clinically sane and he has never killed anyone.
So what makes him tick? The movie alludes vaguely to a motivation by Bronson to attain some level of celebrity based solely on his violent deeds. But really, Charlie's rage seems to be driven by the simple fact that he's great at beating the hell out of people. He takes pleasure and pride in his pugilistic proficiency, resigning himself early on in life that he'll never be as good at anything else, so he may as well embrace his talents. During the brief periods where Charlie is not in jail he almost seems uncomfortable in his own skin, unsure of his place in society. Fascinatingly, during his years in prison, Bronson also developed into an award winning painter and poet (he has published 11 books). I guess he had plenty of time to work on honing his craft.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Brock Norman Brock) was clearly influenced by A Clockwork Orange, recreating similar elements of that film's surreal sadism in his own work, such as bloody fight scenes set to symphonic scores. Interspersed throughout the movie are bizarre inner monologues that Bronson delivers in a theatre to a full audience and to the viewer by breaking the fourth wall, putting on his own one-man show while caked in clown makeup. The device is a little overused and pushes the boundaries of pretension, but it's still fascinating to watch Hardy do his thing.
Hardy's remarkable portrayal of the oddly charismatic sociopath somehow manages to elicit sympathy and good will from an audience that should be repelled by his brutality. The movie certainly has its problems, such as stretches where not much happens and a tendency for the violent scenes to blend into one another. When he's looking to scratch his asskicking itch, Bronson has a fondness for taking a prisoner, stripping naked, covering himself in paint or whatever greasy liquid is around, and then waiting for the riot police to take him on. This formula, or some variation of it, repeats more than a few times. It's still entertaining to watch, but it comes at the expense of deeper story development. Despite these flaws, it's still well worth a watch just for Hardy's fascinating performance.