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17 November

Chopper Read born, 1954

On this day in 1954, Mark Brandon Read was born, in Melbourne, Australia. The son of an army father and a Seventh-day Adventist mother, he spent the first five years of his life in children’s homes before returning home, where he was often beaten by his father. A street fighter already as a teenager, he began his criminal career by robbing drug dealers, then went on to kidnap and torture members of the criminal underworld, in order to extort money out of them. He gained a reputation for brutality – bolt-cutting (hence the “Chopper” nickname) and blowtorching his way to notoriety. Between the age of 20 and 38 he spent almost all of his life in prison, serving terms for armed robbery, assault, arson, kidnapping and other less serious crimes. While in prison Chopper had his ears chopped off by a fellow inmate, at Chopper’s instigation. The reason why remains unclear. Chopper was stabbed by his own gang while in prison, for reasons which also remain unclear. “Look, honestly, I haven’t killed that many people,” Chopper told the New York Times in April 2013. “Probably about four or seven, depending on how you look at it.” Though the number is probably closer to 20, it’s Read’s disarming mix of honesty and bravado – “depending on how you look at it” – that made him a celebrity, beginning with his 1991 book, Chopper: From the Inside, a collection of anecdotes on prison life based on letters he’d written from jail. Building on the success of the book, Read went on to become an author of fiction and a media celebrity. Read died in October 2013, aged 58. Having contracted hepatitis C in prison, he needed a liver transplant but refused all efforts to provide him with one, insisting that there were more deserving cases than his. His stance remained unchanged when he discovered he had liver cancer in 2012.

Chopper (2000, dir: Andrew Dominik)

“I’m just a normal bloke, a normal bloke who likes a bit of torture,” cackles Chopper Read as we meet him in this largely prison-based biopic of Australia’s most charming cold-blooded killer. For non-Australians, the movie Chopper delivered first glimpses of two new talents – writer/director Andrew Dominik and star Eric Bana. For all the talents of both, neither has been as starkly effective since. Based on Read’s own books, Dominik and Bana present us with a view of Australian culture that’s familiar, but steroidally stoked. The blokes are all ocker, the Sheilas are all randy and the criminals are lairy to the point of psychopathy. It’s a world of overwhelming menace, with Bana frighteningly capable of portraying Chopper Read as the guy who stands at the top of the heap, a weapon in each hand. As opposed to the loquacious gangsters of Tarantino in the US, or Guy Ritchie’s Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweeps in the UK, this Australian vision of criminality is not glamorous – it’s dirty, sweaty, ugly, though filtered through the self-aggrandising persona of a man who is a lot more self-aware than he lets on. It has its funny moments, in other words. Bana was, amazingly, known as a comedian before he took the role but there’s no trace of a comedian’s tendency to court approval in his portrayal of a psychopath with the energy of a furnace. Unlike other films about criminals, Chopper does not try to explain, or forgive, but it does have a stab (if that’s the right word) at mapping the territory, internal and external, that provided the landscape for Chopper Read’s brutal life. It has the hallmarks of the early noughties film, the zip-edits, dense filtration and cross-processing, and Dominik pulls the same trick – piling on the gruesome – about twice too often, but in Bana we have one of the most menacing performances you will ever see on screen. Don’t let him catch you eyeballing him.

Why Watch?

  • Eric Bana’s breakthrough
  • It was Chopper Read who suggested Bana for the role
  • The ear-chopping scene – nice
  • Take-no-prisoners hard-as-nails movie-making

Chopper – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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