This past September, when S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) showed his latest genre piece at Fantastic Fest, audiences were shook. Many of the critics proclaimed it as a bone-crunching exploitation experience, with one of Vince Vaughn’s best performances; though to be fair, that hasn’t quite been a high bar to pass lately. Aside from starring in a Maroon 5 music video and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, Vaughn’s churned out role after role, from last year’s Term life, to Unfinished Business, Delivery Man, The Internship (which he co-wrote with Shawn Levy), A Case of You, The Watch, and Lay the Favorite. One needs another breath of air to simply expand on the rest of his forgettable and outright peculiar choices. Despite the massive amount of rug-burn received after having his acting chops dragged across the red carpet, Vaughn has managed to pick himself up, dust off the criticism, and fight; hard!
Scrapping his knuckles raw and bringing his 6’5” frame to the yard, Vince Vaughn lets every boy and girl know that he still has it, portraying recently fired ex-boxer Bradly (definitely not Brad) Thomas, who falls back into the drug running game in order to restart his life with his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter). Twelve months later, with life seemingly in order, Bradley finds himself arrested after a run goes awry, facing seven years of prison time at a medium security prison. Once in, he is paid a visit by a man known only as the Placid Man (Udo Kier, doing what Udo Kier knows best), who instructs him that if he doesn’t kill an inmate of a separate, maximum security prison, that his now pregnant wife will lose the child in a rather brutal fashion.
Initially, as it played out, I was unsure of Brawl in Cell Block 99 as it made its way through its 2nd act, and it was bothering me. Here is this meat and potatoes exploitation film with a generous side of more meat, with some of the most visceral and impacting punches I’ve seen in years, and I was left yearning for something. I was unsure about the pacing, which takes your hand and slowly leads you around this towering man who leads a sorted past, which remains relatively hazy throughout its hefty 130 minute run time.
This is a film by a director who cares as little about exposition as he does your attention span, and whether it lacks the endurance necessary to duke it out, dragging you into a world that’s real, raw and unflinching. It’s also a world that, like Bone Tomahawk, is littered with a sensationalist grime, one that creates a heightened awareness in where it wants to go, which causes its lengthy run time to feel exhaustive, though vital to the characters.
Yet, I was also unsure of the characters, which appeared tonally flat and one-dimensional. After all, these are characters that, in any other genre, would air their flaws with an overarching pride that might possibly turn their past deeds and current misdemeanors against them, breathing life into them. Except this is a modern-day western exploitation film, and its protagonists just so happen to be conflicted yet morally superior to the conventional structure of character development as well as the outlaws gunning for them; ones who think control the game.
Zahler writes these characters in a way where they tend to float above the murky depths of life’s many emotions, focusing on one or two at a time rather than losing themselves to a myriad of fervent reactions. These are characters that, in a life unseen, have tackled many curveballs, placing an air of understanding, calm and approachability that resonates before, after and even when shit hits the fan.
When Bradley loses his job, he calmly gathers his belongings and heads home, The O’Jay’s ironically singing that “it’s a dangerous line of work” and that “stuff won’t last forever”, indicating what’s to come and what is. After Lauren tells him that she’s been cheating on him for the past three months, he lays into her vehicle, punching the window out and even ripping the entire hood off. It’s a scene that could have been shot with a chaotic and unruly approach, cutting back and forth between his rage and the victim, except there’s a level of placid stillness to the way Bradley unleashes his anger, never quite losing his grip on things despite destroying a car with his bare hands. After all is said and done, he calmly goes inside and talks it out with Lauren, because despite their very real flaws, their love remains as real as the blood pouring down his hand.
And once the blood starts pouring, well, it doesn’t really stop! This is a bare-knuckle boxing match where bones are bent to obscene angles, fists illicit bone-crunching sounds, and faces are literally obliterated by impact. Zahler and his make-up crew get to work constructing Riki-O level face explosions, dragging that whimpering child out of you with some of the year’s biggest “oh shit” moments. At one point, Vaughn takes a shoe and slaps a prison guard with it, all before popping his elbow out of his skin. Then, as if the guard was his girlfriend’s car, he picks himself up slowly, and in an orderly fashion, ushers in the next fight.
What Bradley does is draw his own blood first, showing a sky-scraper of a man that is in full control, and Vince Vaughn doesn’t just embody this, he bangs its head against the starting bell, indicating with a Zen focused intensity that when he starts it, he also finishes it. Carrying a magnificent cross tattooed on the back of his shaved head, Vaughn juts his chest out further than anyone since Robert Mitchum, and the level of intimidation and unease is exactly on par with Max Caddy from Cape Fear.
The brilliance of Vaughn is that this menace is subverted in his disconcerting puppy-dog eyes and soft features that have made him a gentle giant of sorts. He’s both respectful southerner and reformed slugger; revered drug runner and righteous citizen. The level of subdued depth Vaughn shows is nothing short of brilliant, matching his imposing physicality with a sense of worldly acceptance that makes Bradley a surprisingly admirable hero.
By the time the 2nd act is said and done, and our hero well beneath the maximum security prison, I no longer found myself unsure: Brawl on Cell Block 99 is the film I never really knew we needed. As Vince Vaughn, bandages around his knuckles, makes his way through the rusted yellows and peeling oranges of a nightmarish prison cell, I find myself relishing the drawn out and deliberate pacing, the violently garish cartoon world, and the monumentality of its caricatures that S. Craig Zahler crafts.
It’s a film that knows what it means to exploit genre, brandishing a magnifying glass over its minute details to the point of lighting them on fire. A genre piece that, when done correctly, knows how to subvert expectations as well as its own momentum, delivering performances that are as on fire as their surroundings. In the end, Vince Vaughn’s got 99 problems and a brawl ain’t one!
Have you seen Brawl in Cell Block 99? Let us know what you think.