Film Score: 5 out of 5 (Classic)
Synopsis: Following a botched drug deal, former mechanic and boxer turned drug runner Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) lands in jail and must fight to survive. Brawl in Cell Block 99 misdirects expectations until erupting into a hyper violent tale akin to 1970’s exploitation films seared by a John Carpenter-esque synth score. After watching the film, I never want to be in a confined space near Vince Vaughn.
Director S.Craig Zahler has sprinkled the grit of Westerns onto New York City. Absent are the desert plains and cannibals of Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, but the brooding and savagery remain. Litter, the modern day tumbleweed, rustles across the street in an early scene as Bradley waits to drive home when two gang bangers stop alongside him. The two sides silently weigh each other up with the focus of duellists as silence fills the inner-city ghost town.
Bradley squares up
Bradley is an old gunslinger reincarnated. He quietly lives as a mechanic yet is cloaked in an enigmatic past and bristles with restrained violence, symbolised by the distinguishing tattooed crucifix atop his head. Zahler’s use of perspective causes Vince Vaughn’s physicality to fill every scene. Bradley keeps a facade of control but is most interesting when tottering between calm and his inner rage such as angrily throwing his former locker keys. I was unable to consistently watch True Detective’s second season, but in glimpsed snippets Vince Vaughn’s character of mobster Frank Seymon was arresting. The season and Vaughn were not well praised, but in Brawl in Cell Block 99 Vaughn proves that he can embody an antihero. Vaughn channels into Bradley a quiet seriousness dovetailed by the deadpan delivery I loved in Dodgeball. The mix adds an intense urge to cower and laugh in Bradley’s presence, especially in one scene where he calmly commands another prisoner to; ‘ talk proper, or get raped’. To tread such a role and remain engaging is not a second chance for Vaughn, but a public reminder of his acting prowess. Physically, Vaughn fits the role of Bradley. His stature imposes on the screen like Richard Kiel’s Jaws in James Bond. Unlike most actors where disbelief in what they have done settles in after the film, I willingly accept that Vince Vaughn can break another’s limbs with the effort most men place in opening unyielding jars.
Jennifer Carpenter, of Dexter and White Chicks fame, excels as Lauren, Bradley’s wife. Carpenter has always been lithe but in Brawl in Cell Block 99 she is painfully thin, with sinew bunching at her shoulders. Like Vaughn, Carpenter’s physicality attests to her character, her struggle overcoming the loss of their child and remaining sober. Lauren can be vulnerable but matches Bradley’s strength with a toughness which flares in the film.
The rift between Bradley and Lauren
The relationship between Bradley and Lauren is told through the space of a scene. The initial rift between them is literally present as the visible gap between the two characters in their living room. This emptiness returned when Lauren, alone in their bedroom, clearly fears for Bradley’s safety. For a film mainly staged in the cramped confines of prison, Brawl in Cell Block 99 uses space to great effect. Wide camera angles accentuate Bradley’s menacing build and strength, while the camera switches focus from intimate close ups to distant shots mirroring Bradley’s emotional state. The technique is simple and effective. When Bradley finally arrives in cell block 99, the camera retreats towards the ceiling. Taking on a bird’s eye view, the camera observes Bradley now powerless and small in the darkened cell.
Once Bradley is incarcerated his reality warps into a brutal exploitation film. Brief segments of the outside world are divorced from Bradley’s new reality, hued by a glacial blue filter. Red Leaf’s prison guards clad in jet black uniforms, lead by surly Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson), ape the military police in Escape From New York March accompanied by a pulsating electronic score. A collection of old stone passageways, inhuman cells and forbidden torture devices, Red Leaf is a monster’s lair rather than a prison. Brawl in Cell Block 99 takes on the tone of a horror film upon arrival to Red Leaf. Time in Red Leaf becomes marked by the humming of caged bulbs while both prisoner and guard become increasingly violent. Despite its delightful twists Brawl in Cell Block 99 feels real thanks to a great plot by S.Craig Zahler and even better casting. The minor roles, especially Fred Melamed as eloquently passive aggressive requisitions officer Mr. Irving, enliven Brawl in Cell Block 99, adding both humanity and comedy to a brutal tale.
Bradley meets the guards of Red Leaf
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a masterful prison story flitting between the grind house tropes of horror, violence and revenge with consistent performances. Tragically for the film’s setting, Brawl in Cell Block 99 has been locked away. Receiving no presence in U.K. cinemas despite rave reviews at the Venice film festival, the film is exiled to the iTunes video store. The price to rent Brawl in Cell Block 99 was reasonable. I did enjoy being able to repeat my viewing over the 48 hour activation period and analyse scenes. However as I said in my Christopher Nolan and Netflix piece here, digital release will unlikely match the public attention cinematic distribution brings. After all, adverts online are useful but nothing matches a physical poster on the street, or a sign at the cinema. In the wake of a summer box office draught, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is the type of film that needs to be shown in cinemas right now.
By Saul Shimmin
P.S: R&B band the O’Jays performed an excellent song for Brawl in Cell Block 99, composed by the polymath himself S.Craig Zahler. The song can be listened to here.
For the trailer, see below: