Dir: Andrew Dominik. Australia. 2000. 94 mins.

Prod cos: Pariah Films. Int'l sales: Beyond Films, tel (612) 9281 1266. Exec prods: Al Clark, Martin Fabinyi. Prod: Michele Bennett. Co-prod: Michael Gudinski. DoPs: Geoffrey Hall, Kevin Hayward. Prod des: Patrick Reardon. Ed: Ken Sallows. Original music: Mick Harvey. Main cast: Eric Bana, Simon Lyndon, Kate Beahan.

An opening caption insists that this riveting movie is not a biography of Mark "Chopper" Read, Australia's best known street criminal, a violent hit man self-credited with 19 murders and any amount of off-hand mayhem. Instead, it plays fast and loose with the facts of Chopper's unsavoury adult life, using a barrage of narrative techniques to present a "portrait" of this banal, unsettling sociopath.

In a maximum security Melbourne prison, early in the film, Chopper (Eric Bana) casually slaughters a rival Mr. Big. He then spends the rest of his life inside and outside jail armed to the ravaged teeth, ready to resist violent reprisals, some real, most imagined. "Now look what you've gone and done," says Chopper, surveying yet another of his blood-soaked victims. There are rivers of blood - choreographed fountains of blood - in debut director-writer Andrew Dominik's stylised macho movie. So he'll be moved to prison hospital, Chopper organises for both his ears to be sliced off, in extreme close-up, of course.

Inevitably glamorising his brutish hero, Dominik shows little interest in psychological background, which is reduced to two short enigmatic scenes with Chopper's father, or courtroom details. How he gets away with murder is, unfortunately, unexplained. What he does get, and it's enough to flag major box office potential in Australia where the real Chopper's series of best-selling "revelations" have sharpened his cult status, is a magnificent performance from erstwhile TV comedian Bana. Eminently matey one second, a volcanic monster the next, Bana totally inhabits the character, moving De Niro-like from trim young inmate to fat-bellied homicidal hulk, revelling in every comic possibility, frightening his on and off-screen audiences to bits. The film is currently at the top of Australia's box office chart after four days on release (see separate story).