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By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2001


Brutal brilliance

Chopper (R) (91 min.) -- Brace yourself for Eric Bana's comically corrosive performance as Mark "Chopper" Read, a ruthless, gregarious criminal. Director Andrew Dominik opens his film with a disclaimer that this isn't a biography, then unfolds a character study so harrowing that you pray the story isn't true.

Maybe it is. "Chopper" Read is real, still serving time Down Under for one murder conviction and (unofficially) other crimes the police couldn't pin on him. He's an author of note behind bars, and Dominik based his movie on several Chopper books based on his cold-blooded career. How much the Chopper series or Dominik's film can be believed is debatable.

There aren't any doubts about Chopper, the movie. This is a terrific slice of low life with an unforgettable brute at center stage and an actor pulling out the stops playing him. Bana, a bit player in the Australian comedy The Castle, gives a crazed performance, turning every violent act into a sucker punch. Read is a cheery bloke without conscience or concern for any life, least of all his own. His idea of mercy is shotgunning a kneecap instead of a face.

Chopper begins with Read's imprisonment for assaulting a judge and a jailhouse stabbing that leaves him a marked man. Prison justice comes bloodily and from an unexpected source. You won't witness a more chilling scene than Read being stabbed repeatedly and still playing tough guy. Strong-arm tactics serve him often, if not well. Chopper contains several savage scenes that, coupled with Dominik's quasi-documentary style, are quite disturbing.

Read gets paroled after he disfigures himself in graphic, masochistic fashion. On the streets, his past is always over his shoulder, and old scores are settled. Paranoia pushes Read into an inescapable jam while tabloids make him a celebrity.

Dominik employs some stylish film-speed changes, moody color schemes, even nursery rhyme rhythms in Chopper. Most of the film's power, though, comes from watching Bana simmer and erupt. This is a powerhouse performance that probably won't be remembered at awards time, but it should be.

Opens Friday at Channelside Cinemas in Tampa. A

Brooklyn's Romeo and Juliet

Brooklyn Babylon (R) (89 min.) -- Racial tension among African-Americans and Jews is the backdrop for an awkward interracial love story. Marc Levin's Romeo and Juliet instincts are undermined by bland romantic leads and simplified civics lessons.

Sol (Tariq Trotter) is a Rastafarian rapper. Sara (Karen Goberman) is a Jewish worrier. They meet after a fender-bender between Sol's dubious friend Scratch (Bonz Malone) and Sara's fiance Judah (David Vadim). Shy flirting blossoms into forbidden love. Meanwhile, Judah's special-ops neighborhood patrol is getting revenge for his totaled car.

Levin's good intentions lead to clumsy incarnations. His idea of social commentary is cutting between a hip-hop concert and a Jewish dance or comparing dreadlocks and Hassidic braids to suggest, hey, we're not that different. Customs are dutifully contrasted. Each side gets one villain and a wise elder preaching tolerance. Meanwhile, Sol and Sara remain above the fray, gazing and giggling.

Brooklyn Babylon is too convoluted to make any subplots matter and either sterile or absurdly slanted in its polemics. Even the soundtrack has "cut-out bin" written all over it.

Opens Friday at Centro Ybor 20 in Tampa. C

A few familiar scenes

When Brendan Met Trudy (NR) (95 min.) -- The rowdy novels of Irish author Roddy Doyle inspired an amusing film trilogy of The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van. His first original screenplay is When Brendan Met Trudy, an odd coupling between a meek teacher (Peter McDonald) and a rollicking burglar (Flora Montgomery).

Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert wrote: "If the title reminds you of When Harry Met Sally, that's because half the scenes in the movie are likely to remind you of other movies. . . .

"The more movie references you recognize (from Once Upon a Time in the West to The Producers) the more you're likely to enjoy When Brendan Met Trudy, but the movie works whether you identify the scenes or not. It has that unwound Roddy Doyle humor; the laughs don't hit you over the head, but tickle you behind the knee."

Opens Friday at Channelside Cinemas in Tampa.

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