With two features writer/director S. Craig Zahler has quickly become a filmmaker that I have on my radar. In 2015, Zahler had the gall to try and upstage Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight with his own western, Bone Tomahawk. While both featured Kurt Russell, Tarantino’s western got most of the attention. But for those who happened upon Zahler’s debut, either during its limited theatrical bow or on home video, you got one hell of a treat. Echoing John Ford’s The Searchers and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, Bone Tomahawk was a survivalist tale bolstered by a talented ensemble.
Two years after tackling the western genre, Zahler goes behind bars with Brawl in Cell Block 99. Just when you’ve think you’ve seen every prison movie imaginable, here arrives a penitentiary flick with a new set of rules.
Let’s start with the star: Vince Vaughn.
Believe it or not, there was a time when Vaughn was more than just a wedding crasher. Remember when he couldn’t stand Sean Austin playing every down of practice like it was the “god damn Super Bowl” in Rudy? How about when he shared the screen with Joaquin Phoenix twice (Return to Paradise and Clay Pigeons), and was on the receiving end of an inspiring speech by Lance Armstrong (Dodgeball) about overcoming adversity and seizing victory the right way – um, whoops!
Having spent years starring in middling comedies, Vince Vaughn had become a wasted talent, playing smart-alecky or man-child characters. His shtick had grown stale; his audience was dwindling. It is my belief that there comes a point in every actor’s life that he/she needs to take a break and start anew. Taking chances can reignite a career. It’s why the term McConaissance was coined. That’s not to imply that Brawl in Cell Block 99 will reap Vaughn similar fortune, but it’s one hell of a fresh start.
When washed-up boxer now tow-truck driver Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) loses his job that’s the least of his problems. Turns out his marriage is in shambles. Wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) confesses having an affair. Rather than take it out on her he calmly but forcefully asks her to go inside before proceeding to physically assault the car. Headlights smashed. Detached hood. Wipers pulled off. The aggression shown by the bald-headed Vaughn screams Don’t fuck with me. A small sample of what S. Craig Zahler has in store, perhaps? Oh, yeah – just you wait.
Vince Vaughn is a hulking reserved menace that, when unleashed, becomes an unbridled killing machine.
Sober and with a baby on the way, Lauren and Bradley have made amends and turned the page. To make a living Bradley takes a job for an old friend as a drug courier. When a job goes sour, he winds up in a medium-security correctional institution. To repay a debt, Bradley has to forcefully get himself transferred into a neighboring maximum security prison to kill a tough hood in cell block ninety-nine. As added insurance, Udo Kier is holding his wife captive and plans to do unspeakable things to his unborn child if Bradley doesn’t comply.
And so the violence begins.
Rarely do I get riled up and yell at the screen but Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a different animal. I must’ve yelled “Holy shit!” at least three times, witnessing Vince Vaughn bend limbs at obtuse (and grotesque) angles, crunching bones, and staining the ground with blood. Like a hardcore Super Mario Bros. video game, Vaughn levels up with each new challenge. When he finally gets to the final stage he meets the sadistic Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson, totally enjoying his transition from Miami Vice to mean, old sumbitch).
S. Craig Zahler clearly has a knack for exploitation; Brawl in Cell Block 99 is grindhouse through and through. Benji Bakshi lenses both penitentiaries with dimly-lit precision, and fight coordinator Drew Leary ensures that the sequences are conducted in medium and long shots. Leave the quick-editing for those big-budget movies with editing bays to spare.
Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas is easily one of his best roles and the change is welcomed. Whether it was his bald head or the cross tattooed on his cranium that won me over, I’m not sure. What I do know is this: Zahler and Vaughn need to make several more movies together.
RJE Entertainment has sought fit to give one of the best surprises of 2017 a 4K Ultra HD release. As such, adopters of the medium will be treated to superior cover art that echoes its pulp roots. Not as quite as elaborate as this poster for Sean Penn’s Bad Boys but a hell of a lot more appealing than the slapped-together Blu-ray cover with a deflated Vince Vaughn and his name in big, bold DOC orange.
A small release like Brawl in Cell Block 99 is lucky to get a 4K UHD release at all, so I wasn’t expecting much as far as extras go. The supplemental features are reserved for the Blu-ray Disc that is included with the 4K release. The first is Q&A with the Cast and Crew conducted at Beyond Fest (September 29, 2017) inside the famed Egyptian Theatre. The other is the EPK-style featurette Journey to the Brawl. Fifteen minutes of the cast and crew discussing the making of the film with particular interest on Zahler’s style, the stunts, and actors Vince Vaughn and Don Johnson.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 is great, ultra-violent, and Vince Vaughn like we’ve never seen before. That phrase gets thrown around a lot, but it’s truly warranted here. You can’t go wrong with picking up either the 4K UHD or Blu-ray. Just pick it up. We need more movies from S. Craig Zahler.
RLJ Entertainment Presents Brawl in Cell Block 99. Written and Directed by: S. Craig Zahler. Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Marc Blucas, and Udo Kier. Running time: 127 Minutes. Rating: R. Released on Blu-ray: December 26, 2017.
Tags: 4K UHD, Blu-ray, Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Don Johnson, Grindhouse, RLJ Entertainment, S. Craig Zahler, Vince Vaughn