Don’t go in expecting a biopic on the Death Wish star, though I’d pay to see that. This Charles Bronson, born Michael Petersen, is a British artist and career criminal whose emulation of the legendary Hollywood hardass led to the name change and has kept him behind bars for 35 years and counting, though he’s never been convicted of murder. Tom Hardy is pure dynamite in the role, beefing up 35 pounds to play Britain’s most notorious prisoner.
It was armed robbery that brought Bronson to jail in his youth, but the film focuses on the mayhem the man unleashes behind bars. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, known for his Pusher trilogy, pushes hard at the boundaries of banal film biography. Bronson talks directly to the camera, wears menacing clown paint and does music-hall bits. He also makes life hell for guards who interfere with his vision of himself as an artist. So much for the global petition circulating to free Bronson. Whether or not you’d sign the petition, this movie and Hardy’s electrifying performance will knock you for a loop.