Title: Brawl In Cell Block 99
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas, Tom Guiry
Plot: Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) a former boxer and drug mule finds himself drawn back into his old life when he is laid off from his job at an auto-repair company. However when a pick up gets botched he finds himself imprisioned and with a debt to repay to his former employer Eleazer (Mucciacito) who has now kidnapped Bradley’s wife Lauren (Carpenter). Now Bradley has to assassinate a fellow inmate being held in a maximum security facility.
Review: Perhaps if Tarantino had not been on his own kick to revitalise the Western genre with “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight” we would perhaps see director S. Craig Zahler in much more of a mainstream light especially with his own take on the Western with “Bone Tomahawk” memorably bringing cannibals to the wild west while somehow managing to combine intelligent plotting with jaw dropping violence and now with this film he attempts to do the same for the prison drama.
Continuing the recent move into more serious fare for Vince Vaughn following his memorable turn on the largely forgettable second season of “True Detective”. Here Vaughn is very much the velvet glove inside the steel fist as he plays the hard hitting Bradley who thinks little of the brutal damage he inflicts on those who stand in his way and this is after we’ve seen him dismantle his wife’s car with his bare hands after he discovers that she has been cheating on him. At the same time he’s not just some mindless psychotic thug with his soft spoken and straight to the point attitude while frequently insisting he’s called Bradley and not Brad which makes him a very much a different sort of character than you would expect, especially considering the journey that we follow him on as he has to get from his initial imprisonment at a medium security facility to the maximum security facility of Redleaf by essentially beating the living hell out of anyone he can.
On equally strong form are the supporting cast which see’s Udo Kier as the go between from Bradley’s former employee and whose dark threats regarding the fate of Bradley’s wife in perticular the fate of their unborn child which hints at the violence to come. Don Johnson is on equally great form as Warden Tuggs who also uses the threat of violence and the generally dire conditions of his prison and much like Bradley plays against type as he constantly retains an air of cool, even when the situation around him is getting increasingly out of control never giving us the balistic meltdown we expect him to be building towards.
Despite the premise this is far from he all out action fest that you might expect. Yes there is certainly a lot of action here with some incredibly shot and wide framed brawls really making the most of Vaughn’s boxing training he undertook for the role but much like with “Bone Tomahawk” Zahler teases out these moments, spending the first hour establishing his characters and the botched drug deal which leads to Bradley being incarcerated but its never boring especially with Zahler showing the same kind of flair for dialogue as he has for violence
Shot with an intentional grindhouse eye for violence here it’s most jarringly cartoonist in how its approached with arms being broken and noses blooded it only gets worse when Bradley finally reaches the titular cell block 99 located in the depths of Redleaf and were order is maintained through the use of shock belts and less than humane treatment of the inmates considered problematic to be sent down there. Unquestionably these moments are cringe inducing and even slightly nauseating in places thanks to the fantastic sound design which really makes you feel the full impact of these moment. However compared to the superhero style of action and quick cuts its almost refreshing to see how Zahler holds back and just shoots the action almost from the view point of the onlooker. Yes Bradley might be overpowered in the damage he’s able to inflict with no real explanation as to how he’s able to achieve some of these almost superhuman acts of violence.
As of now Zahler might be one of the few directors alongside Richard Kelly, The Soska Sisters or Quentin Tarantino who I’m excited to see what they do next which at the time of writing is the equally evocatively titled “Dragged Across the Concrete” which will see him taking on the police procedural which after seeing his first team films has me only the more excited to see what other dark delights are yet to come.