As a child of the eighties I had the great misfortune to have missed out on grindhouse cinema. Sitting in a theatre all day, watching raw and wriggling film seems like an excellent way to spend your time, but alas I will never get to have that experience. If only there were movies out there that could recreate that grit…
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Marc Blucas, Dion Mucciacito, Udo Kier
Director: S. Craig Zahler
released on blu-ray December 26, 2017
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%, Audience Score 74%
The Guardian: ***/*****
Steven Craig Zahler, known sometimes as S. Craig Zahler and also as Czar when performing, is a director, screenwriter, cinematographer, novelist, and musician. He has written novels in a number of genres, most notably within the western, crime and science fiction arenas, and his work as a drummer, lyricist, and singer for Realmbuilder has garnered success with metal enthusiasts. In short, Zahler is a man of many talents.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is his second film, but his first film (Bone Tomahawk) received critical acclaim and a positive response from the general public. I think this can be attributed to his broad interests and his ability to fuse genres together in an appealing way.
But best of all, he has managed to take an actor like Vince Vaughn, play to his comedic strengths and infuse a fresh perspective to his talents which allow a grindhouse crime film to work in a satirical state of Trump presidency.
Courtesy of Wikipedia…
Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn), driving a tow truck with a car in tow, pulls into the auto garage lot he works at. Soon after he arrives, he is laid off. He gathers his personal items from a locker and departs the garage in his car. As he arrives home, he sees his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), sitting in her car in front of their house, using her cellphone. He approaches her and demands to see her phone, which she gives to him. As he is scrolling through it, Lauren admits to him that she has been seeing someone else. Bradley instructs her to go into the house, which she does. He then violently dismantles her car with his bare hands. When done, he enters the house to speak to Lauren about why she made the decision to cheat on him. Once the discussion ends, Bradley decides to forgive Lauren and to do more than just make ends meet. He makes the decision to return to drug dealing, a life he previously left behind.
Eighteen months later, Bradley and a pregnant Lauren living in a larger, more expensive home. Bradley’s boss, Gil (Marc Blucas), gives him a new assignment. Bradley is to go with two men to pick up a shipment. Bradley does not trust the two men, but is urged by Gil to do the job, as it will lead to more money and more business. During the job, Bradley and the two men pick up the shipment by boat. As they drop the boat off at the pier, one of the two men takes one of the bags and heads to the car as Bradley ties up the boat. Bradley takes the other bag, dumps it in the water for a later retrieval, and instructs them to do the same with their bags but they knock him down & run off with one of the bags. Suddenly, the police show up and engage in a firefight with the two men. Bradley has a chance to leave, as the police have not spotted him. But, aware that the deal was that no one was supposed to be harmed, he decides to stop the two men. One is killed by the police and the other is knocked out by Bradley. Bradley is taken into custody and ultimately sent to a medium security prison.
On the second day of his incarceration, he is visited by the Placid Man, (Udo Kier), who informs Bradley that he works for the boss of the two men that were killed in the shootout. He tells Bradley that Lauren has been kidnapped and that, unless he kills an inmate named Christopher Bridge, limbs of his unborn child will be surgically removed and sent to him. Bradley decides to take the job. The Placid Man tells Bradley that the inmate is in cell block 99 inside Redleaf correctional facility, a different maximum security prison.
Bradley picks a fight with a guard, brutally breaking his arm. As he is restrained and being taken away, Bradley fights with the other guards, until he’s overpowered and transferred to Redleaf. There, he meets Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson), who subjects Bradley to a cavity search outside of the prison entrance. Bradley is put into a horrible cell, where the toilet is clogged with feces. The smell being so overwhelming, Bradley is forced to take off his undershirt and wrap it around his nose. Eventually, he is able to go outside for yard time. When a fellow inmate informs him that Christopher Bridge is not located in this section of the prison, Bradley fights some fellow inmates and consequently is thrown into Cell Block 99.
Bradley is forced to wear a belt that gives him electric shocks at a push of a button, as punishment for the fight. His cell in block 99 is lined with broken glass. Bradley devises a plan and takes the lining from his shoes and puts them between his body and the belt to minimise the shocks. The plan works, but he accidentally kills one of the guards when he slams a door on his face when he tries to escape. Bradley locks the other guard in his cell. Bradley goes and meets with the boss of the men who he assaulted earlier (revealed to be the man who hired Bradley for the initial job that landed him in prison). Bradley fights with his henchmen, leading to him stepping on the back of one of the men’s heads and dragging it across the pavement, leaving that man’s face disfigured, with his skull showing. Bradley fights another henchman and slams his foot down on that man’s face, brutally dislodging his jaw, killing him. Bradley grabs the boss and takes him back to his cell. Bradley takes the man’s phone and calls The Placid Man to negotiate for Lauren’s freedom. Warden Tuggs arrives at the entrance to block 99, but Bradley threatens to kill the remaining guard, if he and any other guards comes in. Lauren is delivered to Gil, who in turn, kills The Placid Man. Bradley then speaks to Lauren for the last time, as well as sharing a few words with their unborn child.
After knowing Lauren is safe, Bradley grabs the boss and places his head over the crude squat toilet hole and stomps on his head, decapitating him. The captured guard runs from the cell, and Warden Tuggs enters into the cell. Accepting his fate, Bradley gives one last look at Tuggs, before Tuggs shoots Bradley twice, once in the chest and once in the head. The screen fades to black as we hear the third gunshot and Bradley’s body hit the floor.
It’s a simple premise taken to excess. A film that by all accounts shouldn’t exist, and yet macho ultra violence still features heavily in modern cinema. Quentin Tarantino should probably hang up his hat now, because Zahler is willing to take risks with his characters that Tarantino has taken since Pulp Fiction. Bradley is certainly mild-mannered at the start of the film. He takes losing his job like a champ, but when he learns his wife is cheating on him, a tiger beneath is hinted at, and so we see that there is so much more to his personal history and an inhuman kind of strength held at bay.
It’s not until the second act that we really see the full extent of Bradley’s abilities, but it is completely necessary to humanize him first, so that both the satisfaction as he moves towards his goal and irksome consequences of his actions stick with us after the curtain has lowered and the lights have dimmed on the blood-soaked floor of this epic.
Pros: Vaughan’s character is grounded in emotion and a loyalty to his family, and so the violence becomes intelligent played to accentuate the fantasy of a blue collar worker acting out.
Cons: For all of the detail and intentionally cheap practical effects, it isn’t always clear what the message of the film should be. But then again, wasn’t that true of most grindhouse films of the seventies?
Runtime: 2 hours 12 minutes
Points of Interest: …
It’s amazing to see Vaughn in such an intimidating role, because it also feels like he is invested in the role after a decade of being type-cast in loser man-child roles. I really enjoyed a lot of films that came out in 2017, with La La Land, Get Out, Logan, The LEGO Batman Movie and Baby Driver at the top of that list… but this seems to be the sleeper hit of the season, and one I’m glad to have stumbled upon.
I’m not sure what the future holds for Vince Vaughn or for S. Craig Zahler for that matter, but I honestly can say that I hope both of them continue to make these kinds of intelligently constructed and entertaining worlds. Stories like Brawl in Cell Block 99 have a message within them, and that is one of quality over quantity.
That said, it seemed like a good time to share another of my favourite films with you in this week’s Watch Culture episode. A fun and quick overview of 2015’s The Gift, starring Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman, and Rebecca Hall, with Edgerton in a first-time directorial role as well. It’s really quite excellent, and the film is top shelf too. But I’ll leave that final decision up to you. And as always… Comment! Like! Subscribe!