Death Become Him

Mark "Chopper" Read, one of Australia's most notorious criminals, is the subject of a new film. So, how does the villain feel about becoming a cinematic hero?

No escape. It would become the story of Read's life: if you choose to believe it at all.

What's above and below is absolute fact. Except for the parts that are utter fiction. What you've read and are yet to hear is less a man's story than it is his self-made myth, the story of a schoolyard victim who, for 30 years, has been renowned as Australia's most celebrated criminal. It's a tale drenched in blood, ripe with the smell of burning flesh, punctured by homemade prison shivs, riddled with machine-gun bullets. It's a tale populated by men named Cowboy Johnny, Sammy the Turk, Dave the Jew, Mad Dog Cox, Terry the Tank, The Texan--all of whom were criminals, most of whom are dead, some because of Mark Read.

You may choose to believe all of it; you may wish to dismiss most of it. Read even admits that some of the time, he's "pullin' your leg" in his books, which began as a series of letters to an Australian journalist more than a decade ago. The movie about Read's life comes with a disclaimer. "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," says the poster, which features Aussie comic Eric Bana looking every bit like Mark Read as he clutches two pistols. He looks no different from any Wild West outlaw made immortal in the dime novels and penny dreadfuls of the day. Read was a bad man who made for great copy.

Scenes from Chopper, in which a bad man (played by stand-up comic Eric Bana) makes for good newspaper copy; below, producer Michele Bennett and writer-director Andrew Dominik spent seven years trying to get Chopper made.
©2001 First Look Pictures
Scenes from Chopper, in which a bad man (played by stand-up comic Eric Bana) makes for good newspaper copy; below, producer Michele Bennett and writer-director Andrew Dominik spent seven years trying to get Chopper made.
Mark "Chopper" Read entered prison for the first time in 1971. He spent most of the next 27 years behind bars, in a world he absolutely loved.
Mark "Chopper" Read entered prison for the first time in 1971. He spent most of the next 27 years behind bars, in a world he absolutely loved.

But somewhere between reality and deception lie some 25 corpses and the man whose broad shadow drapes over each one, whether or not he truly had anything to do with their untimely deaths. Mark Brandon Read is one of the most charming, affable, erudite men ever to chop off his enemies' toes or fire a shotgun into a man's eye.

His name is Chopper. He is a killer. And he is a star.


Surreal. That is how Mark Read describes watching Chopper, writer-director Andrew Dominik's debut film, for the first time. He felt it was as though someone had been filming him in secret. That's how bloody real the movie was to its subject. Not that he likes every bit of the movie, which is less a narrative than a montage of scenes and events dating back to 1978. Read takes umbrage with a scene in which Chopper, played by former stand-up comic Bana, bashes in his prostitute girlfriend's head, head-butts her mother, then scolds his battered love: "Look at what you've done!" He doesn't much care for the scene in which his prostitute girlfriend shoves a needle into his arm. He says neither incident happened. He says he never used drugs.

But he didstab Keithy George in the neck, right in front of Pentridge inmates. And he didshoot drug-dealing Sammy the Turk in the eye, right outside the Bojangles nightclub in Melbourne. Both were killed. And he didtake a shiv in the guts from his old pal Jimmy Loughnan. But what's a man to do when they make a movie of his life?

"Parts of it weren't really flattering, no," Read says. He laughs. "But you gotta live with that, dontcha? If you allow people to do a film on your life, you're never gonna be 100 percent pleased about it."

By no stretch of the imagination is Choppera hit film in the United States, despite its status as a moneymaker and critics' fave in its homeland. Since its release in New York last April, Chopper has played in some 100 theaters in 85 cities and, according to its distributor, grossed about $250,000--a pittance, even by independent-film standards. Though it will debut in Dallas on August 3, premiering at the just-opened Angelika Film Center & Café, it has been available for several months at Premiere Video just across Mockingbird Lane. A critical favorite on the film-festival circuit for nearly a year, Chopperlikely will play on local screens for a short while and then move on.

It will raise a bit of a fuss, perhaps, among those prone to gripe about how it celebrates a violent man doing violent things, but in the end, it's no more brutal and bloody than, say, Reservoir Dogs. The two films, in fact, share something in common: Both feature a man having his ears sawed off. In 1978, Read had a fellow inmate slice off the tops of his ears so he could be moved out of maximum-security lockdown. He used a razor. In the film, Chopper sits absolutely still as the blade slices through flesh and the blood runs down his face.

And like Reservoir Dogs, Chopperis a bloody good time. Bana has a blast playing Read, to the point where both men look and sound almost identical. Those who know them say Bana sports the same cockeyed and toothless grin, walks with the same broken shuffle, lunges with the same weight of the world upon his shoulders. And despite his fits of violence, there is something sweet and likable beneath Bana's beefed-up, inked-up surface--the guilt, perhaps, that lies behind the sadism. He's the gunslinger with a stand-up's timing, a killer with a wicked grin. The performance is so extraordinary that producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun, Pearl Harbor) has cast Bana in the role of Hoot in director Ridley Scott's adaptation of Mark Bowden's book Black Hawk Down, due for release next year.

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