Over its 10year lifespan Underbelly has often been criticised for glorifying crime.
Depicting crime, however ‘glamorous,’ does not automatically deify it if there is consequence and redemption. Crims are shot dead, they are locked away, crime does not always pay.
That said Underbelly Files: Chopper (presumably titled merely to sidestep funding rules) sees its central character embrace the spotlight and revel in his notoriety. Tickets, please.
Mark ‘Chopper’ Read (Aaron Jeffery) is on the stage regaling his stories of crime to a spellbound audience. This forms the entry point for writer Justin Monjo’s script with flashbacks supplying the bulk of Nine’s 2 part mini-series.
A 2002 Sydney cabaret audience is in peals of laughter and applause as Chopper spins yarns on incidents in Melbourne’s 1990s and beyond. For all his shortcomings, a wild-eyed silver-toothed Chopper has a natural ability to hold an audience in the palm of his hand. There are run-ins with Alphonse Gangitano (Vince Colosimo) & Lewis Moran (Kevin Harington), self-mutilation in Pentridge’s H-Division, and repeatedly dodging the law.
He also was in a long-term romance with high school sweetheart Margaret Cassar (Ella Scott Lynch) who makes demands of her bad boy. If he goes back to prison, it’s over.
“There are 2 of you. There’s beautiful Mark right here now, and there’s Chopper. If you don’t say goodbye to Chopper you’ll be dead,” she tells him.
Underworld scenes include Chopper striding through a nightclub with a live dynamite stick in his mouth and manic rounds of Russian Roulette with loaded pistols. He’s a character, for sure…
But there are also spectres haunting Chopper including Tasmanian bikie Syd Collins (Todd Lasance) who appears ghost-like in the middle of Chopper’s live performances, in a theatrical form of conflict. During his years in Tassie, the two were at odds, with Syd bizarrely ‘inviting’ him to his wedding for an $8,000 fee and Chopper accused of shooting his adversary in the stomach. Like much of the tale, the lines blur between fact, fiction and Read’s own fantasy.
Also featuring in the miniseries is Chopper’s father Keith Read (Michael Caton), who may be close to his son, but derision underlines their relationship. Meanwhile Alex Tsitsopolos and Jane Allsop both play detectives looking to pin Chopper for shooting Collins -a crime he swears he did not commit- and Zoe Ventoura plays a woman who falls for his charms, through prison bars.
Jeffery has a tall order in portraying Read given Eric Bana was so memorable in the feature film role (there are several references to Bana & the movie, including one hilarious scene in which he roars with laughter through the violent scenes in a cinema screening). Yet Jeffery manages to make this his own, tapping into a different vernacular and intonation than Bana’s. To his credit, he is in just about every scene.
But his story focus is also one of the shortcomings of this drama -unlike original Underbelly seasons there just isn’t enough screentime given to supporting characters (blink and you will miss Debra Byrne as Judy Moran).
Part II is the richer of the two instalments, showing vulnerability in the title character and a particularly rewarding chemistry between Jeffery & Caton as rogue son & father -both deserve nominations for their work. This is where director Peter Andrikidis delivers some of the better moments of the miniseries, which also boasts some impressive lighting.
The drama notes that ‘Characters and scenes have been fictionalised for dramatic purposes’ which is the TV version of Chopper’s own mantra: “Why tell the truth when a story is better?”
Throughout the saga I found myself wondering if the Underbelly franchise was now all a bit tired. How many more times must we see Colosimo swagger on screen? I guess ratings (albeit in a new landscape) will ultimately determine if it is still warranted.
But this should still be seen for the performance of Jeffery. It’s the best thing he’s done.
Underbelly Files: Chopper airs 8:30pm Sunday & 9pm Monday on Nine.