Bronson joins movies like John Boorman's The General, Andrew Dominik's Chopper and Peter Medak's The Krays, all part of a very specific sub-genre I like to call "Biopics of criminals from the British Commonwealth." Those other films tended towards kitchen sink realism and a studied remove from their characters; a necessary condition when dealing with a class of people who tend to intentionally deflect scrutiny. On that score, Refn is blessed with a subject whose violent criminality seems less driven by economic necessity or even pathology than an all-consuming desire for fame. As such, Bronson has spent a good portion of his thirty-some-odd years in prison (most of it in solitary confinement) writing books of poetry, memoirs and exercise manuals. That gives Refn and company a wealth of insights into what makes a seemingly psychotic creature like Charlie Bronson tick. As Charlie, whose bombastic monologues give the episodic film a spine, points out early on, he is not a product of his environment. His parents were solid middle class folk from Luton. He beats up classmates, cops and, once he's finally thrown in prison for robbing a post office, inmates and guards, out of boredom and a failure of imagination. Like many people, young Mickey Peterson yearns for the validation of fame, but lacks an outlet. In the cloistered environment of prison, he finds that outsized acts of violence are the fastest way to notoriety, and that said notoriety provides him with an artistic project. His life becomes a series of theatrically staged outbursts, each designed to send the message to his fellow inmates, prison officials, the general public and Queen Elizabeth herself, that Charlie Bronson is a man not to be fucked with. Bronson's prison fame grows, but since it only extends to the prison population, he's got to stay inside in order to enjoy it. That's easy to do when you keep caving guy's heads in all day long. One of the most intriguing threads in the film is the idea that Bronson seems to have fallen into his violence-as-art routine by accident, and would probably rather not spend thirty years in prison, but is too bullheaded and self-aggrandizing to admit it to himself.
All of Refn's well-crafted shots and the gleeful profanity wouldn't amount to much without Tom Hardy's lead performance. Hardy's Bronson is ferocious and menacing, but also childlike and calculating. His volcanic rage is wholly terrifying, but Hardy manages to convey a sense of the character's bifurcated nature. He's ruined his life with blind aggression, but he's done so deliberately, with artistic flair and methodical stagecraft. Hardy's grasp of the character coupled with Refn's mastery of film elements make for the most vivid and insightful investigation of a criminal mind in recent memory.