Director: S. Craig Zahler
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas
Plot: Father-to-be, Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) is imprisoned for drug-running and forced to do the dirty work of a dangerous drug-lord, who has his pregnant wife hostage.
Vince Vaughn does comedy. It is one of those assumed facts that cinema fans tell themselves. He is best known for those mediocre comedies where he is paired with Owen Wilson (Wedding Crashers, The Internship). That is what makes it very interesting when he pops up in unexpected places. Brawl in Cell Block 99, while Zahler is free to drop some dark humour into the mix from time to time, is most certainly not a comedy. It is a gritty punch-up of a movie that spends most of its running time, wallowing in miserable situations. Perhaps one of the greatest things about Brawl in Cell Block 99 is that the part fits Vaughn like a tailor-made glove. You would think he has been playing the hard-as-nails tough guy for years. It’s not just the careful measured performance that Vaughn expertly delivers, but his very presence feels like the essence of a bruiser. Scalped head, threatening tattoo, Texan drawl and muscles that bulge yet never look excessively huge. If you saw him walking down the street, you would be deemed intelligent if you crossed the road. The character of Bradley Thomas is a truly engaging one too. With films like this, where it feels half a story in its own right and more of an experiment with a left-field casting choice, you expect baby steps. A stock character out of the performer’s range, but one that doesn’t over-reach. A slutty stunner for a Disney princess. A hardened criminal for a rap star. However, Vince Vaughn has one hell of a role to fill. There is something fascinatingly paradoxical about Brawl in Cell Block 99’s antihero. Take the opening scene for example. Bradley gets fired from his job and comes home early to find his wife having an affair. Not the best start to the day. You expect Bradley to start bursting into a rage and hurling abuse, the audience beginning to fear for Jennifer Carpenter’s guilty but petite girlfriend. Your guess would be partially right, but his outburst is so much more than a husband getting angry. He recognises the anger bubbling within him and takes steps to contain it. He orders his cheating wife inside and then, when she out of the way of his violent fit, he begins smashing up the car. But even something simple as smashing up the car is directed with such interest by Zahler. He doesn’t just demolish the car, but systematically dismantles it. He targets the headlight, breaking the glass with his bare fist and snapping the wires inside with his hands. Only when the light is destroyed, does he turn his attention to the next part of the car. When he feels his temper has finally cooled, he goes back inside the house and discusses how to mend their fractured relationship. It is such a contradictory, amazing opening to a film and sets in stone a memorable character.
The rest of the film could be argued to be watching Bradley Thomas react to different scenarios. After that scene, we fast-forward eighteen months into the future. That same wife is now heavily pregnant, and they are living in a big house, thanks to Bradley’s new career as a drug-runner. There are a lot of interesting things here to make Brawl in Cell Block 99’s leading hero worth more discussion. For one, in a strange way, the central romance is even stronger than most, because we were introduced to it at such a broken level. The couple feel even more in love than the stereotypical partnership, because in a short ten-minute opening, we have understood that they have been through hell, the kind of scenario that would cripple most relationships, and come through it together. This is a love built on hard work and when this romance is threatened, it feels even more crucial to protect. True, the love story is partially just a burning backstory for Bradley Thomas, Carpenter’s role reduced to a few token scenes (hardly sexist – every actor who isn’t Vaughn feels side-lined here), but it still resonates due to the originality shown here by Zahler. The other story beat that intrigues is a little less innovative, but Vaughn’s ‘gangster-with-a-code’ routine. Bradley’s career as a drug-runner does more than kick the story into motion, but set the hero up as a man who is willing to do bad things to give his family the life they deserve. Bradley’s moral code is totally built around his wife and unborn child. He does some truly awful things in this movie, but we never lose sight of why he is doing them. There is a cool sense of logic to Bradley Thomas, making him the kind of hero we probably never learn to understand, but one that is fun to watch on camera. This film could almost be a fictional documentary, where we try and fail to get into the head of this violent, but decent human being. One moment he is politely accepting a prison sentence, the next he is snapping bones.
It doesn’t feel right to give too much away of Brawl in Cell Block 99. The fun is in the experience of watching this boiling pot of a film unfold. Just be aware of a few things. This is a slow-burner of a movie. S. Craig Zahler last directed Bone Tomahawk, a Western that spent most of its running time, shooting the breeze with its four unlikely heroes. Treat this film like Zahler’s last; there might be moments when your patience is tested, but it will be greatly rewarded. Besides Brawl in Cell Block 99 is interesting enough that a slow pace feels fitting. Zahler’s direction benefits from the sensation of watching nothing happen for a long time and then everything to go horribly brutal in the space of a few seconds. The fights are not extensive, but brilliant. Zahler plays it simple, keeping the camera on the actors and letting Vaughn break bones. The choreography is not complicated, but there is a realistic simplicity to the punches thrown. It keeps this movie grounded in reality, which creates a stomach-turning sensation of these situations being all too possible. Again, Vaughn deserves credit for handling these fight scenes as well as he does, not falling back on nifty editing like Liam Neeson would have done. Those wanting a more intense fight movie experience will be disappointed however, not understanding that the power of this movie is in the subtext. Watch the lengths Bradley Thomas is pushed to and how he handles the extremes of his situation. As each new challenge emerges, you are horrified at what this man has to endure. Again, look to Bone Tomahawk for an idea of what awaits you with this film. That was a film that did not shy away from gruesome violence. Nor does this one, the bad guys willing to go to truly monstrous lengths to get what they want, and Bradley to retaliate with equally bloody methods. The end result: you will be reeling at what you’ve just watched. In a nice way…
Final Verdict: S. Craig Zahler directs an unrecognisable Vaughn in a slow-burning powerhouse of a crime drama. Disturbing, fascinating, gripping.