Spare, brutal and bleakly, sneakily funny, this fictionalized portrait of a notorious Australian leg-breaker rests firmly on the shoulders of TV-trained comedian Eric Bana, whose only previous movie experience was a smallish role in the vulgar comedy The Castle (1997). And Bana is nothing short of brilliant: Even when the movie Chopper meanders, Bana's Chopper Read is utterly mesmerizing.

A cross between England's flamboyant Kray Brothers and American literary thug Jack Henry Abbott (In the Belly of the Beast), Chopper Read emerged from Melbourne's criminal underground in the 1970s, where he made a name for himself as a loose cannon who preyed on other criminals, and was ready with a smart remark when the press came calling. Read cultivated his mad-dog image, covering himself with tattoos, capping his teeth with metal and encouraging the ferocious-sounding nickname 'Chopper,' which, depending on which source you believe, was derived from a cartoon character or Read's habit of chopping off people's toes to make clear the seriousness of his intentions. Packed off to Melbourne's notorious Pentridge Prison in 1978 for trying to kidnap a judge, Chopper found himself in close quarters with a whole lot of equally bad guys, many bearing grudges against him from the outside. Unable to get transferred to another facility through normal channels, Chopper persuaded another inmate to slice off most of his ears, which earned him a medical transfer and put the finishing touch on his legend. Released eight years later, Chopper promptly killed a minor-league drug dealer named Sammy the Turk, went back to jail and wrote the first of a series of memoirs, all of which became runaway best-sellers.

To his credit, first-time feature director Andrew Dominik is upfront where most filmmakers aren't. Rather than opening with the standard mealy-mouthed disclaimer--'This film was inspired by true events'--Chopper lays it on the line: 'This is not a biography,' followed by the admission that it takes liberties with the facts as laid out in Read's books (themselves suspected of being a heady mix of facts and brutal braggadocio). Divided into two parts, the first chronicling Chopper's 1978 prison stay and the second his brief sojourn on the outside in 1986, Dominik's film is pure character study. That you come away knowing little about Chopper Read except that you wouldn't want to get on his bad side is certainly a liability, but it doesn't make Bana's Chopper any the less fascinating to watch. In addition to his brilliant timing and surprisingly subtle body language, Bana undergoes a physical transformation of Raging Bull proportions between the film's '70s and '80s sections. Lean and sleek in the first, he's packing a prodigious gut for the second, the absolute embodiment of a beefy bully boy shaped by equal parts starchy prison food and hours in the weight room.

Bana plays Chopper as a nightmare of conflicting impulses: He'll stab a man in the eye and then offer him a cigarette, and appear truly baffled that the poor bastard wallowing in a widening pool of his own blood doesn't want the smoke. He shoots a drug dealer, then drives him to the hospital, beats up his girlfriend (Kate Beahan) and blames her for her mother's hysterics. His best friend, Jimmy Loughnan (Simon Lyndon)--the fellow Chopper wanted to help out when he tried to abduct that judge--stabs him in prison, and Chopper takes it with an odd sort of resignation. That's just the way things go: You stab people, people stab you, you make the best of it and move on. Perhaps it's just as well that Dominik doesn't try to pin Chopper's anti-social impulses on his upbringing: His mother was a strict Seventh Day Adventist, his dad was a World War II veteran who seems to have suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome, and young Mark's youthful misbehavior was treated with electroshock therapy--sometimes the truth stinks as badly of criminal-psych clichs as the most formulaic fiction. Instead, the movie scarcely addresses Chopper's past at all, although a couple of terse exchanges with his now-elderly dad (Kenny Graham) in the '80s section are brilliantly suggestive.

Chopper simultaneously set box-office records and ignited the inevitable controversy in its native Australia, where it has been accused of glorifying Read and his sociopathic exploits.

--Maitland McDonagh