MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka


As a criminal, Michael Petersen could best be described as inept. As a self-made celebrity, though, the prison-hardened thug couldn’t have been more of a success … not that he didn’t get some help along the way.

As depicted in Nicolas Winding Refn’s powerful profile, Bronson, Peterson was born of a bad seed and grew ever more twisted. At the ripe old age of 19, the cocky Luton native was convicted of using a sawed-off shotgun to rob a Post Office of approximately $26 and sentenced to seven years in jail.

Instead of playing nice, so he could score an early release, Peterson used his fists to beat any guard who got in his way into submission. In doing so, he managed to turn a 7-year bit into what, so far, has been a 34-year stretch in dozens of Her Majesty’s finest penal institutions. Because of his continued unwillingness to abide by prison rules, 30 of those years have been spent in solitary confinement.

Peterson, who adopted the persona and “fighting name” of Hollywood tough guy Charles Bronson, circa, Death Wish, actually was given two chances to fit into civilized society. Each time, however, he would be arrested within weeks for failed robberies and sent back to his “hotel room.” Before long, the tabloid media would bestow on him the title, “most violent prisoner in Britain,” thus ensuring an immortality of sorts.

In Bronson, the onetime bare-knuckle boxer and circus strongman is played by British actor Tom Hardy, although he’s nearly unrecognizable in his newly buffed-up physique and handlebar mustache. The Las Vegas odds-makers may not have caught his tour-de-force performance yet, but it would take a Herculean effort for any of the academy’s usual Best Actor suspects to top it.

Don’t take my word on it, though. The proof is in the pudding.

One might think Refn is merely spouting a mouthful of typically hyperbolic publicity-tour nonsense when he claims to identify with the character. By all indications, however, the onetime enfant terrible of Scandinavian film wasn’t blowing smoke at a gullible reporter.
Although Refn’s parents were “sensible, socialistic intellectuals” — preferring Truffaut to Tobe Hooper — their son was no stranger to the world of on-screen and street-level violence. While in his teens, Rifn moved with his mother and stepfather from Denmark into a penthouse apartment high above the “mean streets” of lower Manhattan.

“I grew up with parents who saw films as high art,” Refn said, while in Los Angeles on the publicity hustings. “I was dyslexic and didn’t learn how to read English until I was 13. I loved the whole New York film experience.

“Scorsese’s Mean Streets was an inspiration to me. I also learned a lot from Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Kenneth Anger, from whom I stole everything.”

In the grand tradition of late-20th Century rebellion, he also would embrace many of the elements that make New York both a highly stimulating and extremely dangerous place to spend one’s formative years.

“There were a lot of places I wasn’t allowed to go, but went anyway,” Refn added. “By the time I turned 15, I was well on my way to becoming a huge club kid. Getting in was easy, but I wasn’t into that whole circus aspect of clubbing.”

He would return to Denmark to complete his secondary education and live with his father, Anders, a director and film editor who’s frequently worked with Lars Von Trier. That accomplished, Refn returned to New York, where he was enrolled in and quickly expelled from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for throwing a desk against a wall, something a young Bronson does in the film, as well.

“I was reacting to the moment, whatever it was at the time,” Refn said, with a laugh. “I considered art to be a destructive medium and hated the school’s authoritarian approach.”
He applied for admission to the Danish Film School, but, before the semester began, was given an opportunity to expand one of his short projects into the feature-length, Pusher. At 24, the enfant terrible was about to learn what it took to be taken seriously as an adult.
Copenhagen would seem an unlikely setting for a trio of movies that recall Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino’s dark and brutal depictions of clannish criminality. In a city where tourists and civic boosters saw only Kodak moments, Refn found a multiethnic smorgasbord of heroin smugglers, cocaine addicts, car thieves, extortionists, whores, pimps, unrepentant ex-cons and stone-cold killers. Who knew?

“I knew a lot of gangsters growing up,” he allowed. “I came upon the Serbian smugglers and dealers depicted in Pusher by chance, and put what I learned in their world into the movie.”

Pusher stunned the European arthouse crowd, which began making the same comparisons to Scorsese and Tarantino everyone else would when the film hit festival circuit in the late 1990s. In fact, though, the movie represented something very different from the traditional American and Cockney takes on the criminal underworld.

For one thing, there was no orderly chain of command, as dictated by gangsters representing the Cosa Nostra, Japanese Yakusa, Chinese Triads, Hell’s Angels or countless generic mafias. The criminal enterprises operated much like the European Union itself, recognizing different languages and currencies, exploiting porous borders and absorbing refugees from bloody civil wars and political upheavals elsewhere. For many, watching Pusher was cinematic equivalent of finding a bag full of used syringes on a Tivoli Gardens merry-go-round.

Refn would go on to make another gritty and often darkly comic thriller, Bleeders, which focused on disenfranchised proles and, once again, featured actors Mads Mikkelsen, Zlatko Buric, Kim Bodnia and Liv Corfixen. This led to the Copenhagen-set TV mini-series, The Chosen 7, and his collaboration with American novelist Hubert Selby Jr., Fear X, a paranoid thriller set in the American Midwest.

To the great delight of his European fans, the commercial failures of Bleeders and Fear Xforced Refn to accede to requests for a pair of sequels to Pusher. If anything, they revealed even seamier aspects to life in the Copenhagen underground. In “Pusher III,” the heroin kingpin of the original was even required to deal with the realities of growing older in a game dominated by a far more ruthless generation of criminals.

It wasn’t until 2006 that the entire Pusher trilogy found its way to America, and, then, only in limited arthouse runs. If it had been allowed to reach some of the same audiences that propelled Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and Robert Rodriguez into the limelight, the trilogy might have found success here, as well. As it was, America’s congenital fear of subtitles forced audiences to find the films at Netflix or Facets, and on the IFC channel.

With luck and a lot of buzz, Bronson should find a much better reception after its initial engagements this week in New York and next week in Los Angeles. For one thing, the dialogue is in English – albeit a rather thick British one – and the protagonist will remind many viewers not only of Charles Bronson, but also Alex DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange), Don Logan (Sexy Beast), “Bill the Butcher” (Gangs of New York), Jack Henry Abbot (In the Belly of the Beast) and boxer Mike Tyson.

As we meet Bronson, he’s performing a one-man vaudeville show in front of an audience of well-dressed swells in a British music hall. “My name is Charles Bronson and all my life I’ve wanted to be famous,” he tells them.

Completely captivated with himself, the muscle-bound Bronson recalls key moments of his life, while bragging about his ability to become a national celebrity while incarcerated. What are we to make of this monster in greasepaint, white gloves and a cheeky grin?

Unlike the literary giants who championed Jack Abbot’s parole, based solely on his ability to write well, Refn and co-writer Brock Norman Brock don’t ask us to find pity, compassion or mercy for Bronson, even after showing us examples of his award-winning poetry and artwork. Their film is no argument for parole.

“He is the kind of prisoner no one would want to see back on the streets again,” Refn allows. “He’s a totally unsympathetic person and it’s impossible to empathize with his situation. The people in the theater don’t respond to his diatribes for fear he might turn on them.

“There’s simply no answer to the questions posed by Bronson’s behavior.”

That theater, of course, is strictly a figment of Bronson’s imagination, which seemingly has been running at full-tilt boogie since his first day in jail.

“Most prisoners want to break out of jail,” the filmmaker observed. “Bronson escaped inward. Prison became his stage and that’s where he knew he would find fame.”

Fame, being relative, doesn’t often cross borders. Refn hadn’t heard of Bronson when presented with the idea by Brock and he wasn’t anxious to make another picture about a violent man with a story to tell. He was more interested in moving ahead with his Viking project, Valhalla Rising, which he did after completing Bronson.

“I found a through line, though, in Bronson’s pursuit of fame,” he recalled. “He was a total narcissist, married to his own ego. I definitely don’t want people to come away from the movie, thinking it was only a biopic.

“I consider it to be an indictment of the celebrity culture.”

Moreover, Bronson represents to Refn a bridge between the old British criminal, who, when caught, only wanted to do his time and get back on the street, and new-generation crooks more interested in their image.

Refn credits Hardy with putting in six weeks of hard work to add 42 pounds of solid muscle to his 5-foot-9-inch frame. Even fans of his portrayal of Praetor Shinzon, in Star Trek: Nemesis, or Bill Sikes, in Oliver Twist, might have trouble recognizing the formerly slight Londoner.

“Tom took everything we gave him in the fights,” Refn said. “By the end, he was completely exhausted.”

Even bulked up to overflowing, Hardy’s high-octane portrayal of Bronson will be analyzed alongside Alex’s Beethoven-fueled braggadocio in A Clockwork Orange. Having Verdi, Wagner, Bruckner, Puccini and Delibes play behind him throughout many of the rougher prison sequences begged the comparison.

“Yeah, no filmmaker will be able to score a violent scene with classical music without someone thinking of A Clockwork Orange,” Refn acknowledged.

Prison officials had no interest in furthering Bronson’s continued desire for international fame. They were particularly unhappy to learn that a message from the convict was illegally taped and played for the premiere audience in London.

In it, Bronson said from the Wakefield facility, “I’m proud of this film, because if I drop dead tonight, I live on. I make no bones about it. I really was … a horrible, violent, nasty man.

“I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it, either. … See you at the Oscars.”

Viewers of the annual snooze-fest should only be so lucky.

– Gary Dretzka
October 7, 2009

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon