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Film review: Chopper

Published: Friday, May 18 2001 7:25 a.m. MDT

Some stories lose a lot in the translation. Take, for example, "Chopper," a dark comic crime thriller based on the supposedly true exploits of Australian criminal Mark "Chopper" Read.

While audiences in Read's home country might be enthralled by the film — simply because they're familiar with his tale — U.S. moviegoers probably won't understand what all the hubbub is about.

And it doesn't help that "Chopper" never really explains why Read became such a folk hero. As a consequence, the film comes off as a rather forced knock-off of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" or cable television's "The Sopranos." (And be warned that it's also extremely profane and violent — although seeing as how "Hannibal" got an R rating from the MPAA, it would be hard to say that this film deserves a more restrictive rating.)

If the film does have a strong point, it's Aussie stand-up comedian and television-star Eric Bana, who is very impressive in his big-screen debut, playing the charismatic but sociopathic title character.

His ability to charm allows him to win friends easily, but his big mouth and volatile temper frequently get him into trouble — which apparently happened frequently while Read was serving time in prison during the '70s. In the film, Read survives at least one attempt on his life (by his best friend and cellmate) during that time, and, after finishing his sentence, makes a half-hearted attempt to go straight.

Not too surprisingly, he finds trouble soon enough as he decides to take revenge on some of those who sent him to jail in the first place. But the incident also turns him into a semi-celebrity.

Andrew Dominik, a former music-video director, definitely favors style-over-substance filmmaking. While the movie looks good, his inability to develop any characters aside from Read hurts the film — as does his inability to establish a consistent tone. For instance, he tries to find humor in the most inappropriate moments, while seemingly lighter scenes are played with dire seriousness.

Still, there's no denying how stunning Bana's performance is, especially considering the material he's given to work with. (Like De Niro in "Raging Bull," this method actor even gains weight to be more convincing as the older but no less dangerous Read.)

"Chopper" is not rated but would probably receive an R for frequent use of strong profanity and of crude sexual slang terms, graphic gore, violence (gunplay, stabbings and violence against women), simulated drug use (heroin and cocaine) and male frontal nudity. Running time: 93 minutes.


E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com