The Charles Bronson in Bronson is a real person. But it's not the hard-ass Death Wish actor. This Charles Bronson is a hard-ass British prison inmate who's spent 30 of his 34 years behind bars in solitary confinement. It all started with a post-office robbery, but numerous brawls extended his original seven-year sentence into a lifetime incarceration.
"I came into the world as Michael Peterson, but I come out with my fighting name, Charlie Bronson," the bad-tempered brawler (played by Tom Hardy in a virtuoso performance) tells the camera early in this spunky movie. And he's indeed a fighter. The first several minutes of Bronson consist of scuffles with schoolmates, teachers, police officers — pretty much anyone within his fists' reach. "Prison was a place where I could sharpen my tools, hone my skills," he says at one point. "It's like a battleground, an opportunity."
Bronson is a menacing figure with his bald head and bushy mustache. But Hardy and director and co-screenwriter Nicolas Winding Refn soften him a bit by having him deliver witty soliloquies to the camera, dress like a clown and tell corny jokes. He's a likable character, despite his thuggish personality. No wonder he becomes a celebrity behind bars.
Hardy is terrific, skirting Bronson's line between psychotic and being in complete control of his actions. He's charming, funny and downright terrifying as a man who's shuttled between prisons, in and out of prison, and eventually to the crazy house. Refn literally lets Hardy roll with the punches, pulling him along with quick edits, some extreme close-ups and a few fancy camera moves. Mostly, though, he unleashes his star and allows him to roam.
Refn can't quite keep up this momentum for the entire movie. Parts drag, like the theatrical scenes that bridge chapters of Bronson's life and especially a middle section where Bronson joins a real-life fight club in the outside world and Refn takes the movie into David Lynch territory. But he and his willing star, like their subject (whom they clearly admire), come out and go down swinging.