Based on the autobiographical books by Mark Brandon Read, (although the movie admits up front it's playing loose with the facts), Chopper (2000) follows the exploits of Mark "Chopper" Read (Eric Bana), a notorious Australian convict. We see him build his reputation in prison, where his actions draw the ire of every convict, but he manages to attract and enjoy enormous media coverage. Years later, he's back outside, stirring up trouble again.
Eric Bana really delivers a star-making performance. I'm used to seeing him rather bland Hollywood fare (Hulk, Troy), but here, he immerses himself in a role of added pounds, tattoos, disfigured ears, and mutton chops. Many actors might be tempted to rely solely on the added physical characteristics, but Bana really stands out in a role that is at times shocking, often funny, and always fascinating. I was stunned to find out he was known primarily as a comedian in his native Australia before this movie. He's unrecognizable.
We first see Chopper in a cell watching an interview of himself, enjoying the attention and soaking the different reactions he gets out of people. Later, he tells someone he must be a letdown considering all they've heard about him. Chopper is someone completely tied to his image and the reactions of others. On his own, without an outside witness to play off, he seems curiously empty, a shell of a person. The movie is about the lengths he will go to achieve the infamous persona he crafted whether it involves torture, murder, or mutilating himself.
The violence is bloody, shocking, and often unexpected. On the spur of the moment, Chopper is likely to lash out against perceived wrongs against him, then immediately try to apologize. Ironically, the way he views his actions is often quite funny. After shooting someone he thinks owes him money, he complains about having to take him to the hospital. "That defeats the purpose of having shot him in the first place." Another prisoner he shanks lies bleeding to death in a pool of blood, and Chopper offers him a cigarette. Later, when the act is returned upon him by a friend, Chopper doesn't seem to acknowledge he's taken seven stabs to the gut and doesn't hold the betrayal against his friend. Other acts are merely frightening, such as when he beats up his girlfriend.
I can't say I could follow any sort of plot. Most scenes consisted of Chopper barging in, interacting with the other characters, and then causing trouble just because he could. There's talk of the mob putting a hit out on him, but it's one of several elements I had difficulty following. Chopper himself says he never lets the truth get in the way of a good story, but there are numerous times I was confused about who certain people were and what they were doing. I can't help but think I'd have understood better had I known more about the actual Chopper.
Chopper is essentially a one-man show. It's worth seeing just for Bana's performance, and I don't consider that small praise. He's violent, funny, cruel, self-destructive, bizarre, and overall just plain interesting. I can see myself growing to like this movie the more I see it.