Brawl in Cell Block 99
- Emma Simmonds
- 20 October 2017
S Craig Zahler's ultra violent thriller is an interesting departure for Vince Vaughn
With a script that cracks wise and a protagonist who cracks skulls, S Craig Zahler's second feature is devilishly disobedient, an enjoyably confounding thriller that keeps ripping back facades to reveal its next identity. Approaching its violence by asking, 'how much can you handle?', what starts contemplatively, ends in a flurry of increasingly extreme imagery.
Before we get to the stomping, snapping and gouging, Brawl in Cell Block 99 tells the story of luckless Bradley (that affable stalwart of many a mediocre comedy Vince Vaughn), a man let go from his tow-truck driving job at the outset, who arrives home to find his wife Lauren (Dexter's Jennifer Carpenter) has been having what sounds like the world's most half-hearted affair.
When Bradley takes his anger out on her car, pulling it apart with his bare hands, the damage inflicted foreshadows more gruesome feats of strength to come. In an attempt to mend his marriage and get back on track financially, he begins running drugs for pal Gil (Marc Blucas), a decision that eventually lands him in jail, with more misery on its way.
Vaughn's delivery of the hard-boiled quips is fittingly dry but he's not terrifically readable, and neither his act of conscience during a shoot-out, nor his anguish at what happens next are especially affecting. However, the emphasis on his physicality gives him somewhere else to go performance-wise. Despite his hulking frame, Vince has rarely gotten his hands dirty onscreen; here, he makes up for lost time.
His writing is sharp but Zahler's lack of discipline is a problem – this kind of material should never feel like a slog and, at 132 minutes, it sometimes does. His excellent debut Bone Tomahawk ran a little long too, yet a western with a compelling ensemble can weather it. Brawl takes ages getting there but the prison stuff is tremendous: from the sarcastic screws (Fred Melamed's jobsworth check-in guard is a gem) to the dank dungeon that is the maximum security facility, where we find an entertainingly OTT Don Johnson as Warden Tuggs.
There are more subtle pleasures but – given the title, let's not kids ourselves – it's the bravura smack-downs that are the takeaway; beatings that, in their transgression and ingenuity, provide ample illicit thrills, while the makeup team deserve serious kudos for realising every shocking moment without the assistance of CGI. To say Brawl isn't for everyone is an epic understatement. Those of a remotely sensitive disposition should obviously steer well clear; others will lap up the bonanza of oh-so convincingly executed bloodshed, in a film that finds the spirit of grindhouse alive and thriving.
Selected release from Fri 20 Oct.