One of Tom Hardy’s Best Performances Is This Hidden Gem Crime Movie

One of Tom Hardy’s Best Performances Is This Hidden Gem Crime Movie

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  • In
    , a film directed by
    ‘s Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Tom Hardy as the infamous British prisoner Charles Bronson, Tom Hardy delivers a physical performance that is both intense and entertaining.
  • Bronson
    is a tour de force that showcases Hardy’s charisma and Refn’s artistic vision.
  • Despite its dark subject matter, the film is a captivating journey that has become a cult classic and made $2.3 million on a budget of only $230,000.

Charles Arthur Salvador, once known as Charlie Bronson, is a man who has been in prison for most of the last 50 years in the United Kingdom. He is known as one of the most violent prisoners in history, going to jail for relatively small crimes but repeatedly incarcerated further for continuous violent interactions in prison. He has become a celebrity over the incredible time he’s spent behind bars, in cages and, most famously, in solitary confinement, and yet despite the bodily harm he’s been imprisoned over for most of his life, he has never been accused of anything other than beating people. He, in fact, is an award-winning artist, a poet, the author of multiple books and a world-class strange and controversial person, which is why in 2008 auteur Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn and also-weirdo vivant Tom Hardy got together to make a movie about the life of Charlie Bronson.

Bronson, as the film is called, exists as a node connecting the meteoric life paths of three ferocious careers, one in directing, one in acting and one in, well, that’s hard to say. Violence is the answer the British government would give. The court of public opinion, where Charlie Bronson spends more time than even his cell, apparently would say it’s misunderstanding, having received 10,000 signatures on a petition to the U.K. government asking for his release in 2013. For Winding Refn and Hardy, whose semi-autobiographical depiction of the first (and only the first, for the man’s tale has only continued) part of Bronson’s life is one of the most mentally arresting and visceral depictions of a person’s mind on film, perhaps ever.

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If that introduction seems grandiose, the tale of Charlie Bronson in both film and reality put it to shame. Bronson is a living anomaly, bigger in life than a few hundred words or an hour-and-a-half movie (one that could easily be counted among the best crime films ever) can hope to convey, though they may try. Now over 70 years old, Charlie of the eternally new names is still in prison despite repeated attempts personal and public to free him, and it appears more likely at this point that the government of Britain will leave him there til he rots rather than see what would happen were they to free him for another chance at life outside. While Charlie’s career as a prisoner has lasted for many, many decades, the story told in Bronson only (if it can be believed) tells the early years.

The years depicted in Bronson cover more and more varied ground than most alive could hope to experience. The film begins with Tom Hardy (in one of his best roles) as Bronson speaking directly to camera. A master conductor of personal narrative the likes of which have rarely been seen, Bronson sets the stage quite literally. The conceit of the film plays out through the metaphor of Bronson as a one-man act, spilling his life as a story to the viewer-as-audience in a way that makes him seem like a circus ringleader, complete with costume and makeup, his own life the circus to behold.

It really, really works, as Hardy channels Bronson in a way that seems nigh-on possessed while he tells his unbelievable but mostly true tale. The story is both too much and too good to reveal here in full, but essentially, Charlie Bronson was born Michael Gordon Peterson to what in the film is presented as a very normal and supportive family, but he constantly sought out trouble that generally manifested in his kicking the hell out of someone. Hardy as Bronson (in a role Bane would find confusing) tells audience and film viewer this story from his own perspective, using language that echoes Bronson’s own voice (or, in some cases, that of his ghostwriter) in the many books he’s published during his incarceration.

Though that self-authorship of his story begs the question of what is the actual truth of the matter, the film itself doesn’t bow to its narrator, instead presenting a Bronson closer to the government-reported details even as Hardy’s more interior narration continues behind it. What occurs on the screen is that Bronson is young, beats up people and gets in trouble. Bronson gets older, steals some things and gets arrested. Bronson goes to prison, and here he finds his medium: Beating people with his fists, especially prison guards (à la Sons of Anarchy). In the film’s intro, Bronson says that the one thing he always wanted was to be famous, and it’s in this commitment to violence that he finds that fame, first amongst his fellow prisoners and later in the whole of the UK.

Between the many beatdowns, Bronson is shuffled to various prisons, institutions and even the outside world a couple of times when the British government gets tired of handling him, but he always ends up back in a cell or cage of some kind. The underlying message here is that Bronson is a man with one main drive, and that is to rebel. He actually begs for prison at some points, as opposed to a clinic, and he appears to find his periods of freedom simply not enough, putting himself back in jail quickly on light charges. It’s kind of a reverse prison break, as it’s the confinement and the people who create it that are the only things bad enough to fight, that can push back and hurt him enough in return to make him feel like his life is worth living. Watching the cycle repeat is both mind-boggling in its brutality and highly entertaining, as Bronson’s bizarre mixture of joy and rage is impossible to look away from.

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To live up to Bronson’s massive personality (and body) would be an incredible challenge for any actor, but just as the man he plays revels in his violent rebellion against the system, Tom Hardy appears to relish his shot to play such a huge character, even wilder than his later role of Eddie Brock in Venom. From the first seconds of the film, it’s clear that this is not going to be a regular, brooding, hardened criminal, as Hardy delivers his opening monologue straight to camera with the first of many huge grins, which always fall away dramatically to a stone face. Theatricality plays an enormous part in Bronson’s life, who always appears to be cognizant of other peoples’ eyes on him, and Hardy takes that opportunity to go massive with his portrayal.

The result is one of recent film’s great physical performances, with Hardy using every muscle in his body and his face in wildly exaggerated ways that feel affected, but because the man he’s playing is just the kind of person who would act in this way, it’s a perfect match for the film. Hardy is an absolute unit in Bronson physically, having gained enough weight and muscle to make him entirely believable as a man who can take on nigh endless prison guards and boxing opponents (though, surprisingly, he says he was even more ripped for Warrior). He has clearly put his all into the role, and Hardy’s stated to the press that he studied Bronson extensively to prepare, even talking often on the phone. In one interview, Hardy says that Bronson helped him work through a breakup, with Bronson reportedly saying:

“Tom, what I’m trying to say is, right, what I’m trying to say, son, is sometimes yeah you’ve got to cut a little piece of yourself off, yeah, no matter how much it hurts, in order to grow, yeah. In order to move on. Do you know what I mean?”

It’s that kind of contrast, the ferocious fighter capable of that level of wisdom and empathy, that drew Hardy to the role and auteurist filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn to make the film in the first place. The duo is a formidable one, Hardy with his sometimes diva-ish huge personality and the acting chops to back it up and Refn, one of film’s most singular voices. Refn is probably most famous in the wider world for directing Ryan Gosling classic Drive, but his career got started in his home country of Denmark with 1996’s Pusher, a major film in Danish history and the first of Mads Mikkelsen’s career.

Refn has only made 10 films in his career, three of them in the Pusher franchise, but each of them (except maybe Fear X with John Turturro) has gained a reputation as a cult classic, if not an outright masterpiece. Refn is a filmmaker’s filmmaker, often writing, directing and sometimes even producing his movies and pushing boundaries with his depictions of extreme violence and extreme personalities. His most recent film was 2016’s The Neon Demon, which features a career-making performance for Elle Fanning in a tale of modeling pushed to the edge and beyond that somehow leaves the viewer even more soaked in violence and blood than Bronson.

Refn, like Hardy, is extremely picky about what projects he takes on, and the subject of “Britain’s most violent prisoner” is a perfect fit for both Hardy’s bad-boy-turned-megastar personality and Refn’s dynamic work behind the lens. The choice to put Bronson in front of an audience in the film’s narration moments, giving the man’s penchant for the dramatic an actual dramaturgical setting to play on, is brilliant by Refn (who apparently once wanted to make Batgirl), and his use of shadow and light in the typically dark prison scenes make for incredible visuals, especially when they become inevitably soaked in blood.

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It’s not hard to tell from the early scenes that Charles Bronson’s story is one that is probably not going to end in a happy, regular life. From his grandstanding about himself in the metaphorical theater to his childhood of punching teachers, this is obviously not a man who’s going to stay out of trouble. But, because of Hardy’s undeniable charisma and willingness to put more ham on each scene than any one pig could contain, and Refn’s artist’s eye (kind-of Bruce Davidson by way of Dan Flavin, or Michael Mann torqued to the gills on designer drugs), it’s a journey that one is very willing to go along with.

Considering this is a gorgeous, ambitious movie featuring one of the world’s best current actors already deep into his career, it’s incredible that the film reportedly cost only $230,000 to make. That, again, is a testament to Refn’s natural skill as a filmmaker (be sure to check out his most recent directorial effort, 2023’s Copenhagen Cowboy TV series), and while Bronson didn’t set any box-office records, it did make nearly $2.3 million on that minuscule budget. That’s a massive return on investment, fitting for a film about a man who turned a life stuck in jail into international stardom.

Bronson is a film that, back when people had DVDs, was often seen on the shelves of hip young cineastes, and as Hardy and Refn’s legends grow, it only becomes more of a vital film object. The film is fierce, inventive and iconoclastic, and it centers on a character as watchable as any in film history, and indeed, Bronson himself thought so. When he was finally allowed to see it in 2011, Charles Bronson, now Charles Arthur Salvador, called it “theatrical, creative, and brilliant,” saying he loved the performance by Hardy (who hopefully gets a chance to play Mad Max again soon) and that “If I were to die in jail then at least I live on through Britain’s No 1 actor.” If a man so protective of his life and character, so in touch with himself as to change his name every time he feels he has become a new person, feels that a movie about himself is an excellent portrayal, then that’s a movie that’s probably worth watching.

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