‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ trades in the open prairies of ‘Bone Tomahawk’ for the 6×8 of a federal prison, but loses none of the violence.
Most people remember where they were the first time they watch an iconic horror movie, but I vastly prefer my second public screening of S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk. Screened as part of a series of award season films at my local art museum, Bone Tomahawk cemented its status as an iconic midnight film by unleashing a fury of sudden violence upon an unsuspecting crowd of retirees. And while Zahler’s second film, Brawl in Cell Block 99, may not feature award season bait in the form of Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins, it delivers the same combination of slow character beats and exploitation-on-steroids violence that made its predecessor great. Here’s hoping the museum programmers don’t make the same mistake twice.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a film in three parts. In the first part, Vince Vaughn’s Bradley – an unemployed mechanic on the verge of splitting with his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) – reluctantly returns to his career as a drug smuggler to give his family a second chance at happiness. When Bradley’s biggest deal goes awry, Bradley resigns himself to seven years in a minimum security prison to ensure that his wife is taken care of on the outside. Much of the film’s middle section takes place in this first prison, where Bradley gets to know the not-unsympathetic guards and caseworkers who will help him live a productive life behind bars. All of that changes, however, when Bradley is visited by a stranger (Udo Kier) with an ultimatum: find a way to get reassigned to the nearby maximum security prison and kill a man on the inside, or his wife and her unborn child will be brutally torn to pieces. Needless to say, violence ensues.
While director S. Craig Zahler has mixed up the cast, time period, and genre for his second feature film, there are surprisingly few stylistic changes between Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99. That makes Bone Tomahawk a strong indicator of your stomach for Zahler’s latest movie. Much like its predecessor, Brawl is a prolonged genre study where the violence comes considerably later than you’d expect given the lengthy running time. If you are one of those who feels that Bone Tomahawk squanders its exciting premise on a string of plot deviations and unnecessary conversations – an opinion not held by this author, mind you – then you’ll find many of the same problems present in Brawl. When it takes nearly an hour for your character to end up in the first of his two prisons, you know you’re dealing with a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to take his time.
Maybe tighter edits would make Brawl in Cell Block 99 a more palpable film for genre fans, but to chip away at Zahler’s excess is to remove the essence of what makes his movies so great. I don’t watch Bone Tomahawk for the scene where someone is split in two; I watch it for the delightful interplay between Richard Jenkins and Kurt Russell’s characters as they set out on their final ride. Nor would I re-watch Brawl just for the scenes where Bradley stomps a man’s head into a pulp. Everyone of Vaughn’s scenes helps establish his character’s iron will; they also emphasize the downward trajectory he finds himself on in his efforts to save his wife’s life. We’ve seen movies highlight the contrast between a free life and an incarcerated life before, but adding a second, even worse prison into the mix? This gives Brawl an extra gear most movies lack.
None of this would be possible, of course, without the hulking physicality Vince Vaughn brings to the film’s central role. Those who slept on Vaughn’s resurgence in Season 2 of True Detective did so at their own peril; while the actor was often left twisting under the weight of Pizzolatto’s undercooked screenplay, Vaughn exhibited an anger and earnestness that had only been hinted at in his previous performances. Vaughn also has a unique ability to externalize his skepticism when working through a new problem – he’s never better than those few moments when his character is deciding to how to approach a new opponent or obstacle – and here the actor is asked to play to his strengths. That is expected; what is unexpected, however, is Vaughn’s knack for physical violence. Vaughn has never seemed taller or more physically imposing than he does in this film, where he does brawl with his opponents so much as slowly overwhelm them. Bradley is a character held together by rage and determination, and watching his broken body sail across the finish line is one of the film’s many highlights.
If the idea of watching Vince Vaughn smart off and take beatings for two-plus hours is your idea of a good time – and if you have the stomach for Bone Tomahawk‘s many dalliances and moments of stark brutality – you’ll find a lot to love in Brawl in Cell Block 99. Bone Tomahawk fans already know the joy that comes with watching an S. Craig Zahler film with an unsuspecting general audience; there are a handful of moments that are guaranteed to send some audiences members streaming for the exits, and if we’ve learned anything from the controversy surrounding Darren Aronofsky’s mother! it’s that multiplexes are always a little more fun when there are a few movies there that just don’t belong.