Bronson has all the superficial ingredients of a macho-intellectual cult classic. A musclebound, mustachioed British anti-hero (Michael Peterson, "the most violent prisoner in Britain"), a viscerally-minded director (The Pusher Trilogy's Nicolas Winding Refn) more than willing to glamorize this pretentious psychotic as a misunderstood fly in the Queen's ointment, and a score that interrupts pulsing new wave hits with classical flourishes. Collegiate cineastes with space on their wall may purchase the film's poster, but it's hard to imagine someone bothering to take, say, Scarface down to make room.
Peterson, better known by his alias Charles Bronson (and played with brutal relish by Brit film vet Tom Hardy), serves as the film's ringmaster and circus freak, donning flamboyant cabaret wear to introduce key scenes from his life. These usually involve Bronson beating or being beaten by prison officials, considering he's spent all but four months of the last 35 years behind bars -- most in solitary confinement, eventually earning a life sentence in 2000 after over a dozen hostage-taking incidents.
While ignoring such details as Bronson's brief conversion to Islam and the 11 or so books he's written in prison, Refn indulges in familiar, lengthy interludes involving an insane asylum full of Cuckoo's Nest extras (in which Bronson drools under chemical supervision) and a boxing underworld full of aging homosexuals and fickle nymphomaniacs (in which Bronson smiles blankly before finally robbing a jewelry store). Our hero's interest in art arrives almost as belatedly as Jake LaMotta's ability to memorize Shakespeare in Raging Bull, and with almost as little investigation.
All this could be forgiven (and may still be by Guy Ritchie fans) if the film at least had a memorable climax. But the end comes abruptly, after a nude brawl with prison guards (Bronson flashes more flaccid penis than Dr. Manhattan) almost no different than the slo-mo tussles that preceded it. While vaguely suggesting that its protagonist's life is some kind of performance/socio-political statement, Bronson fails to convince that he's even that interesting a thug. Perhaps he's just one with a penchant for face paint.