Eric Bana sometimes seems a bit lost in American film, as if they just don’t know what to do with him, or he doesn’t know what they ought to do with him, which isn’t quite the same thing. He was a Good Bloke in Troy, and a Good Bloke in The Time Traveller’s Wife, and a somewhat more interesting Good Bloke in Funny People, where at least his sense of humour was allowed to show. He was very good in Munich, doing his best with a rather glum character, in much the same way that he was a Bad Guy in the Star Trek movie, perfectly fine in a not-very-interesting role that many other actors could have played. Anyone who hasn’t seen Eric Bana’s Australian work must wonder why he’s got leading man status. I mean, apart from the fact that he’s good-looking and a good actor, how did he get to be up there with Pitt and Rush and Cox and Craig and so on?
People who think like that must not have seen Bana in Andrew Dominik’s 2000 movie ‘Chopper’, in which Bana takes the title role of Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read, a real-life Australian career criminal, and doesn’t just run with the role but boots it clear out of the park. Bana’s performance in ‘Chopper’ makes a good movie into a really, really good movie. It has that quality that David Thomson identified in Cary Grant, of being simultaneously charming and repellent, except that Chopper is the kind of character that Grant would never have played in a million years, a foul-mouthed, gap-toothed, beer-bellied Australian skanger with a penchant for extreme violence and a truly surreal code of personal honour. The really surreal thing about the movie is that it’s based on Read’s own autobiographical works. In any other movie like this – SPOILER ALERT! – the main character would have to die in a hail of bullets at the end. Read didn’t. He ended up becoming a celebrity. I first heard of him when I was briefly in Adelaide in 1999, and I went into a bookshop and asked if they had any books by Mark Brandon Read. The middle-aged saleslady looked doubtful for a moment, then said, ‘Oh yes, Chopper Read’ and led me to the true crime section.
I could go on about this movie for hours, but instead I want to focus on one scene from early on in the film. It takes place in 1978. Chopper, as a young criminal (Bana looking most like himself, lean and handsome) finds himself in Pentridge Prison with his accomplices. During a communal period, he’s relaxing in a room with his guys when an older criminal with notably slicked hair warns him not to cross a certain line on the floor, which separates Chopper and his mates from the serious crims.
Keith: See that line there? That’s your side of the yard. Stay that side of the yard, we’ll stay this side.
Bana looks at the older guy with a strangely blank expression – not like he’s angry, just like he can’t figure out the point of this remark. Then he turns and walks back to his mates.
Keith: Good, ya got that, knucklehead.
Chopper whispers to a friend.
Chopper: What’s he done to his hair?
Shane: It’s boot polish, mate.
The friend sniggers, highly amused but clearly knowing his own place in the hierarchy.
Chopper: [to himself] Poor old bugger.
He straightens up.
Chopper: Nice to see your bald patch has gone, Keith.
Keith keeps walking up and down, stroking his boot-polished bald patch with his hand and keeping an eye on Chopper.
Chopper: Naa, looks good, mate. I like it.
Keith’s smirk is starting to fade, at this point.
Chopper: [matter-of-factly] So you’re not gonna get me, then, Keithy.
His mates give him a startled glance.
Keith: [amused] Not worth doin’ any more time over ya, matey.
Chopper: [in the manner of someone explaining the rules to a child] Aw, Keithy, you’d get off on self-defence. Alls you’d gotta do is kill me, present me psychiatric records to the court, there’s not a jury in the land that would convict ya.
Keith: [forced chuckle] You’re fuckin’ sick, Read, you’re insane.
Chopper calmly extracts a roll-up from his pocket.
Chopper: [amiably] Beethoven had his critics too, Keith. See if you can name three of ’em.
Keith glares at him. Chopper puts the roll-up in his mouth.
Chopper: That’s right, you can’t.
Keith does a yak-yak gesture with his hand.
Keith: Why don’t you do yourself a favour and neck up, ya cunt, you’re a parrot. Fuckin’ blow-dry.
This last insult is oddly inappropriate, since Chopper’s the only one of his crew who doesn’t have an untidy mop of hair – his own hair is closely-cropped, almost military.
Chopper: [pretending to be hurt] Aw, Keith, I always thought I was a good bloke.
Keith: [halting at last and looking at him] What’d you ever do that was good?
Chopper: [cheerfully] Well, I bashed you. That was good wasn’t it? It was good for a bit of a giggle, anyway. Eh Keithy?
There then follows a scene in which Chopper’s friend asks him why he has to keep attacking Keith, who’s the head of the ‘painters and dockers’. ‘No,’ says Chopper, ‘out there he’s the head of the painters and dockers. In here he’s just another bare bum in the shower.’
Shane: Why do ya hate him so much?
Chopper: I don’t hate him. I don’t hate anybody.
Shane: Well, why have we been fightin’ him for three fuckin’ years then?
Chopper: [pause, thinks – this question has apparently never occurred to him] I dunno.
Shane: Well, maybe we should have a reason.
Chopper: Well, make one up!
The scene after that sees Chopper returning to the exercise yard, looking preoccupied, staring at the ground, breathing quickly, his mouth tightly shut. The prison officers usher him and lock up after him. He stands for a moment, staring at the floor, then looks up to where Keith is pacing up and down as usual. And then, without saying anything and without any provocation whatsoever, Chopper strides over to Keith, grabs him by the scruff of the neck, pulls a knife out of his pocket and stabs Keith in the face nine times, screaming as he does so, then lets him drop and walks to the other end of the room.
Keith sinks to the floor, in the middle of a widening pool of blood. Bana stares at him, with an extraordinary expression on his face as if he’s almost regretful, as if Keith has done him some terrible injustice by letting himself be stabbed in the face. The camera stays on him and he keeps looking at Keith with this weird mixture of compassion and something like disgust, as if how-could-it-have-come-to-this, when the truth is it was all Chopper’s idea, if it was an idea at all. Bana looks like he’s going to cry; in fact, he actually chokes back his tears, mutters ‘Shit!’ and starts walking over to Keith.
Chopper: [apparently genuinely concerned] You all right Keith? Eh?
Keith, vainly trying to stem the blood pumping from his face and neck, struggles to push himself backwards, away from Chopper. Chopper seems like he genuinely wants to reassure Keith.
Chopper: [earnestly] It’s all right, Keith, you’re not gonna bleed to death, mate. Alright? They called the screws. The screws are comin’.
He takes out a cigarette and goes to light it.
Chopper: You want a cigarette, Keith?
Keith: [hoarsely] Get away from me.
Chopper lights his cigarette while Keith flounders in the huge pool of blood on the floor.
Chopper: It’s all right, mate. [He tosses the cigarette to Keith.] Have a cigarette, Keith.
Keith manages to hurl the cigarette back at him. Chopper looks hurt.
Chopper: Keithy – hey, come on, mate.
He gives up trying to be friendly.
Chopper: You don’t much like me, do ya, Keith.
Keith: [by now covered in blood] You bash people for no reason, just to make a name for yourself. You’re a fuckin’ idiot.
Chopper looks fleetingly annoyed.
Chopper: [quietly] I’m not the dumb cunt who’s pissin’ blood, Keith. All right? I’m the one who runs the division, mate. Make no mistake about that, alright?
By the time the screws actually arrive, Chopper has recovered his composure.
Chopper: [stepping back to reveal Keith lying on the floor in the pool of blood] Keith seems to have done himself a mischief.
Unfortunately, Chopper planned to simply swap places with Keith in the power structure, but everything goes awry when Keith dies of his injuries. The result is that the dockers in the prison put out a ten-grand contract on Chopper’s life. A senior prison officer warns him that he’s in danger, but Chopper can’t believe it will happen.
Chopper: All sounds a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it? I mean, who are they gonna get to do it?
Nevertheless, Chopper starts taking it seriously enough to conceive a plan whereby he and his mates will take the entire division hostage and he’ll personally paralyse every other prisoner with an icepick, just to guarantee that nobody will attack him. This gets his friends worried enough to do something.
Which brings us to the scene in the film that pushes Bana over the top into awesomeness.
Chopper, Jimmy and Bluey are alone in the cell that they’ve been confined to, pacing up and down and smoking. Jimmy suddenly turns and apparently punches Chopper in the stomach.
Chopper: [grinning] Pity you didn’t learn more of the kung fu, isn’t it, Jim?
Jimmy punches Chopper again, and this time Chopper flinches, spits and wipes his mouth with his thumb, leaving a smear of blood.
Chopper: [puzzled] What’s the matter with you?
Jimmy stares at him and backs away slowly. Chopper looks down and sees that he’s bleeding. Jimmy has stabbed him. He watches the blood dripping onto the toe of his polished prison shoe. He looks up at Jimmy, gauging the situation. Jimmy seems tense. The camera pans down to see the knife in Jimmy’s hand. Chopper looks at it, then looks at Jimmy again.
Chopper: [calmly] Just hang on a second.
Holding up one hand to calm Jimmy, he slowly returns the half-built roll-up in his other hand to his coat pocket.
Chopper: [patiently] What are ya doin’.
Jimmy runs up to him and stabs him again. Chopper doesn’t move, but just keeps looking at Jimmy with the same calm stare. He looks, if anything, slightly puzzled.
Chopper: What’s got into you?
Jimmy stabs him again and Chopper sways and closes his eyes momentarily. Then he turns and walks to the wall, shaking his head slightly as if he can’t figure out what’s going on. Jimmy stands, puzzled, and then Chopper impulsively goes over to him and gives him a hug.
Chopper: C’mere, mate. C’mere.
Jimmy: Sorry, Chop.
Chopper: [affably, patting Jimmy on the back] It’s alright. It’s alright.
He looks at Bluey in the corner, who looks like a terrified rabbit. Then Jimmy stabs him again and Chopper breaks away, with the same look on his face that he had after stabbing Keith earlier.
Chopper: [agitated] Shit. [He starts pacing up and down] Jimmy, if you keep stabbin’ me, you’re gonna kill me, right?
Jimmy stabs him again. Chopper stops, and looks up at him earnestly. Jimmy looks at a loss, and then stabs him yet again. Chopper stands there, forehead-to-forehead with him, looking far more disappointed in Jimmy than like someone who’s being stabbed to death. Then he grabs Jimmy and slams him against the wall, holding him by the throat.
Jimmy: [almost apologetically] Let me go.
Chopper: I can’t let ya go, Jimmy, you got a knife in ya hand.
Jimmy: You let me go, I’ll drop the shiv.
Chopper: [beginning to get annoyed] You drop the knife, and then I’ll let ya go.
Jimmy: You let me go, I’ll drop the shiv, I’ll drop off. I’ll drop off.
Chopper: [patiently] Let go the knife, Jim.
[Sound of knife hitting floor]
Jimmy: Okay, I’ll drop off, all right? Let go – let go me hands.
Chopper: I’m gonna let ya go. Kay? Go and sit down.
He lets Jimmy go and Jimmy backs away from him, looking more terrified of him than he’s looked for the entire first twenty minutes of the movie. Bluey looks like he’s about to shit himself.
Chopper starts to unbutton his coat, which is very bloodstained.
Chopper: [clearly somewhat piqued, if not actually angry] Terrific […], Jim. Bloody terrific. You obviously listened and learned well, didn’t ya?
Jimmy sinks to the floor, his fingers reaching for his mouth as if he wants to put a cigarette in there or suck his thumb or something.
Chopper: [OOV] Always give credit where credit is due, Jimmy? I’ll give ya top marks for treachery, mate.
Cut back to Chopper, who’s now removing his shirt, to reveal that his vest is soaked in blood.
Chopper: [disgusted] But you’re bloody useless.
He takes off his vest, revealing the multiple, bleeding stab wounds in his torso. He looks down at himself. Blood is flowing out of his wounds.
Bluey throws up on the floor (according to the director, the actor was so good that he could throw up for real on cue.) Jimmy stares at Chopper, smoke flowing from his mouth. Jimmy stands up and approaches Chopper.
Jimmy: Y’alright, Chop?
Bana is doing an unnerving chewing motion with his jaw, as if he’s trying to stop himself from doing the natural thing under the circumstances, namely writhe on the ground and scream in uncontrollable pain.
Chopper: [as if affronted that Jimmy would even ask this] Yeah, I’m alright.
Jimmy: [OOV] Jesus, mate, does it hurt?
Chopper stares at the ground and considers this.
Jimmy: …Um, think you’d better lie down, eh.
Chopper: [OOV] What for?
Jimmy: [smiling nervously] It’s not looking too good, mate. Come on, let me help you, gotta lie down and lie still, mate.
Jimmy helps Chopper lie down – or rather guides him to the floor as Chopper’s strength finally, visibly wears out.
Jimmy: Come on, just lie down.
Bluey: I…I’m sorry, Chop. I’m sorry.
Chopper lies in Jimmy’s arms and sighs, and watches an insect crawling along the wall. Jimmy gives him a cigarette to smoke.
Watching this clip again, I’m struck once more not only by Bana’s eerie stillness but also by the brilliant performances of Simon Lyndon as Jimmy and Dan Wyllie as Bluey. Lyndon’s expression, as he backs away after Bana contemptuously tells him to ‘go and sit down’ is a remarkable combination of fear and a sort of fan-love, as if Jimmy has had to stab Chopper partly because he idolises him so much. I already mentioned Dan Wyllie’s remarkable talent for puking on cue, but even though that’s kind of a stunt, one of the reasons this scene works so well is that Bluey is clearly so (literally) gut-wrenchingly terrified of Chopper, even after Chopper has been stabbed several times.
Why did I post this? There’s something about this scene that carries normal masculine behaviour to a degree so extreme that you laugh out of a kind of fear. It’s to do with Bana’s stoicism, as he absurdly refuses to let Jimmy feel that Jimmy’s attack on him has intimidated him to the slightest degree, even as his legs are giving way beneath him. That’s the great and truthful thing about this scene, and I sort of feel that it could only have been pulled off with an actor playing Chopper who had absolutely brazen instincts. And looking at Eric Bana’s career, either he hasn’t been offered parts that enable him to display those instincts, or else he’s been offered but for the most part hasn’t accepted them.
That isn’t to say that he hasn’t been very good in a lot of films; Munich drew on something else that he does very well, that whole sort of troubled-hero thing, and while a lot of good actors can do that, Bana’s one of the few who can convince you that Avner really was a good guy who found himself doing bad things. Still, Chopper — I mean the fictional Chopper — was a bad guy who genuinely believed that he was a good guy, and was even able to persuade you that that was the case, and almost nobody else has ever pulled that off.