It’s a weird feeling when a film gets pushed to release wide, but seems made for only a small subset of moviegoers. Not a bad thing, mind you, just strange to see a little hope keeping through a weary landscape filled with big budget remakes, reboots, or misguided big star laden time-wasters. In that regard Brawl in Cell Block 99 is like a breath of fresh air. Or at least the sweet feeling that comes when the wind gets knocked out of you, as this movie is not messing around. It certainly helps solidify that S. Craig Zahler as a director to watch.
Maybe we’ve slighted Vince Vaughn for too long, or let a series of bad decisions cloud or judgement towards him, as he is on fire here. Cell Block 99 rests almost entirely on his board shoulders and audiences are all the better for it. Cutting an imposing figure, the intangibles that granted him stardom are back in full effect. Bradley (don’t call him “Brad”) Thomas is Southern-by way of Chicago. A man with a dark-ish past, he’s only slightly a bad guys by victim of circumstance.
After losing his job due to economic cutbacks and problems at home, he’s forced to reevaluate how someone like him can gain success in modern America. Becoming a drug runner may not seem glamorous or exactly legal, but if it provides for his family, he’s willing to take the risk. When a complicated deal with new buyers goes south, Bradley find himself behind bars. Little does he know things are about to get a lot more difficult and a hell of a lot bloodier.
Cell Block 99 is structured liked films of old, unfolding in two distinct halves. The first is the start of a crime saga most have seen before, but it’s measured with care, as well as character details. For all the trouble Bradley finds himself in, he retains a shred of sympathy, rallying viewers to side with his plight. But as many stories are quick to tell anyone, nothing is more dangerous than a man with nothing left to lose.
The meat of the film, or at least the parts that most people will be talking about, comes in the form of a series of escalating fights. Eschewing the standard acrobatics or artistry that is found in most action flicks these days, Cell Block 99 instead goes straight for visceral sucker punches. No one will question the legitimacy of the word “Brawl” in the title when the credits start to roll.
Cinematographer Benji Bakshi captures the action in wonderful widescreen, adding to its raw power. It also helps more than a little to sell Vaughn as a stone cold badass. Using his boxing background is smart, allowing him the feeling of a juggernaut. What few cuts break up the flow of the fights are used to insert the gut wrenching special effects. Anyone familiar with Zahler and Bakshi’s previous film together, Bone Tomahawk, are well aware of how graphic the gore can get. Splattering every corner of the screen. Cell Block 99 may be more extreme, but in a way that borders on comedic, while never lessening its impact.
If all this sounds too good to be true, it’s because to a degree, it is. As much as the film gets right, it lingers a bit too long in the early goings. Jennifer Carpenter has little to do as Vaughn’s wife for much in the film. She does as much as she can with what she’s given, even stealing a scene with crowd-pleasing moment late in the game, but it’s a somewhat thankless role. The same goes for small turns by Udo Kier and dialed-in Don Johnson. Each is given a few scenes to relish in their character quirks (though Kier’s may just be his natural weirdness) and that’s about it. Really they add up to minor quibbles, as the rest goes over so well.
There’s many who may tout S. Craig Zahler as nothing more than a director of films that explode into “extreme” situations. To do so, though is to discredit his technique. He simply marches to the beat of his own drum. One that happens to line up just north of “exploitation”. With just 2 films under his belt he already has a strong grasp of mechanics, which is saying a lot. His main strength comes in understanding a fundamental key that has given so many respected directors long careers: how to entertain an audience.
As always with a film like Brawl in Cell Block 99 a contingent will surely rise up against the film. Most likely made up of people short on patience or an aversion to pulpy violence. For everyone else, it makes for one hell of at evening at the movies. Minor missteps and all.
*Note: Brawl in Cell Block 99 opens in limited release on October 6th. This will be followed by a push to Digital HD/VOD on October 13th.