I use hands to help my fellow man / I use hands to help with what I can / But when I face an unjust injury / Then I change my hand into FIST OF FURY

Brawl in Cell Block 99

When we last left novelist and heavy metal drummer turned filmatist S. Craig Zahler, he had made a distinctive directorial debut with BONE TOMAHAWK, a nice western with great characters and dialogue and that turns into a little bit of a gory cannibal movie by the end. I liked that one quite a bit but I think film #2, the crime movie BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (which is coming to video on the 26th but I splurged for VOD) is a huge leap ahead for him.

Vince Vaughn (PSYCHO) stars as Bradley Thomas, a burly tow truck driver who, after a really bad day, decides to go back to the drug business for a while. Cut to 18 months later, when his bedroom is almost as big as the whole house we just saw him in, and his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter, BATTLE IN SEATTLE) is pregnant. Their dreams are finally coming true, but some things go wrong at work (as they do) and he ends up in prison, where he must protect himself on the inside and his family on the outside from the enemies he’s made.

There’s much more to it than that, but that’s not to say it’s real complicated. It feels kinda minimalistic because it unrolls at a methodical, confident pace without gratuitous explaining of anything. Stylistically it almost falls into the Arthouse Badass category, and it feels very ’70s inspired. If not for a cell phone, it would seem like a period piece – he even listens to original O’Jays songs on an 8-track in his car. It has the serious, patient feel of THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE or STRAIGHT TIME or something like that, as opposed to, like, an energetic Guy Ritchie type feel, and without pretension or sacrificing any pulpiness. It can be slow and subtle and sparse but with enough simmering badassness and profound bursts of violence to out-thrill your average spectacle.

I like this type of crime story where it shows some kind of process that’s not the standard thing you always get to see. That always makes it seem like the writer or filmatist must know what they’re talking about. There’s a scene where he’s done some deliveries and then he drives into some wooded area, parks the car under a tree, takes off the license plate, switches it with another license plate, takes a camouflaged netting out of the trunk, covers it up and walks away. The whole time I’m feeling like he’s about to get spotted or ambushed or something but no, we’re not seeing this because it’s a momentous occasion. We’re just seeing what an ordinary work day is like before things go sour.

Some of the prison scenes are the same way. You go through the whole orientation process with him, almost like you’re stuck in there with him. The routine processing stuff feels so legit it’s almost as upsetting as when he gets stuck in the TRAINSPOTTING toilet of cells, or the one with the broken glass on the floor.

By that point we’re at least a little more comfortable with him as the anti-hero we’re gonna be watching go through some shit. At the beginning we know nothing about him and we take one look and figure we’re waiting for him to explode. There are plenty of indications that he will. When he’s laid off in the opening scene, the staff stands sternly like they’re ready for a fight. Every calm, reasonable move he makes seems like a prelude to violence. It’s not. Then he gets home and discovers that Lauren has been “seeing someone.” Only when she gets inside the house does he fist fight her car in a long, painful looking scene. He strips that thing like an animal carcass. Then he sits in the living room quietly discussing how to salvage the marriage, his hands covered in bloody cuts.

As you may have heard, Vaughn is really good in it. I know the bald head and tight long-sleeved shirts are part of it, but I kept thinking of this as a Quiet Bruce Willis performance. So much of the movie is people telling him things – usually threatening things – and him responding with a stare. Maybe a nod. When he talks, especially in the early scenes, there’s a bit of a Tim Blake Nelson cartoon hick thing going, and that can be a little distracting. But mostly it’s a great performance, and different from what we’re accustomed to seeing from Vaughn, even back before he was known as a comedy guy.

There’s alot of quiet and negative space, but when people do talk it’s very distinctive. Bradley keeps his mouth shut more than the next guy, but he can’t resist an occasional zinger. Same with his wife. When he finds her in the kitchen cooking and asks what she’s doing she says “The ritual that happens after you buy the groceries but before you eat ’em.”

And there are just the odd things people like to bring up. Inmates keep comparing their prison to “that one over in Austria,” apparently a very plush one that everybody knows about and expects everybody else to understand references to.

Like in BONE TOMAHAWK the language can be very stylized, with a Coen-esque love of odd or archaic wordings. In fact, some of the linguistic flourishes do sound almost like it’s supposed to be a western. After proposing his plan for saving their marriage, he asks his wife, “Will you abide?” When it’s implied that he has no business judging a drug addict he says “That’s fourteen years done. And the bottle ain’t the same as junk.” I don’t think real people talk like this, but I kinda dig that these characters do.

Bradley is actually an old west type of dude, too. He’s a simple man with a simple code. He really does only care about Lauren and her baby. Becoming a criminal again seems to be entirely about having a daughter and making his wife happy. He’s willing to commit savage violence – like, shit you honestly haven’t ever seen in a movie before – but it’s always to protect her. He’s a weirdly relatable type of husband and dad, all things considered. Kind of like the SCARFACE version of my dad, who would get up every day at 4 am, drive downtown and take the ferry to the shipyard in Bremerton, work all day and then come all the way back and buy groceries and get tired and go to bed and start all over again just to keep us living comfortably.

Lauren outwardly takes Bradley’s single-minded dedication as sweetness, but she also seems somewhat scared of him, and he definitely has an oppressive, controlling side to him. He presents these outrageous requests – give me five years to be a drug dealer, don’t come to my trial, don’t bring our daughter to visit me in prison, but do wait for me – and she just agrees, no discussion, no counter-offer. In the reality of the movie I don’t believe he’s ever hit her or threatened to, but her knowledge of the violence he’s done to other people can’t be discounted.

Anyway, it seems he is not a guy who would hurt his wife. But if you might, he will smash your head in. Or off. Literally. He’s a little bit like Parker in that he would not be considered a good person in real life, but within the reality of the story I am so behind him and rooting for him to do what he’s so good at.

A real badass action movie kinda touch is when a screw named Andre (Mustafa Shakir, Quarry, Luke Cage) sizes him up and asks if he boxes, mentions being the boxing coach. Bradley says he doesn’t and that he’s not interested. Andre seems skeptical, and later suggests maybe Bradley hurt somebody in the ring, maybe killed somebody. (Butch Coolidge, is that you?) The next day Andre refers to him as a “boxing legend,” which I take to mean he looked him up and found out he has a glorious past he’s not talking about. We never get any details, and it never turns into PENITENTIARY or UNDISPUTED. But these exchanges establish that 1) Bradley’s gonna be a hell of a fist fighter and 2) Andre won’t be a slouch either.

There are a few fights and they are outstanding. This is not the kind of movie where a fight starts and there’s some guitars or some beats. I’m not sure but I don’t think there’s any music during them at all. When they happen they are fast, blunt, raw, and hard. And then disgusting things happen to body parts. Things I never even thought of happening to body parts, let alone saw. Fight choreographer/stunt coordinator Drew Leary gets to have a full screen with only his credit on it, and he earned that.

I don’t like the tattoo on his head, though. What’s up with that? “Did he have any distinguishing characteristics?” “No, just a big bald guy. Well, no, come to think of it, there was one thing. He had a giant tattoo of a cross wrapped in barb wire covering the entire back of his head. Never once mentioned Jesus, but had that on there. And it just looked terrible on him. Like, very, very bad. If I saw him from the back I could positively identify him from a football field away. But otherwise it could’ve been anybody.”

In all other ways though, A+ movie, and I will now treat new Zahler pictures as immediate must-sees.

P.S. BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 has the same number of syllables as ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 13th, 2017 at 10:08 am and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

34 Responses to “Brawl in Cell Block 99”

  1. What a week! *Three best movies you have seen lately in a couple of weeks span.

    *I’m projecting 24 Hours to Live as one of those lol

  2. This movie has so much fat on it, it’s ridiculous. John Carpenter would have started it 45 minutes in, and every single scene before that could have easily been the first scene without really changing much. The premise isn’t even established until well past the hour mark. Clearly, this guy thinks the saying is “Overfees your babies and encourage them to sprawl out and overwhelm everything.”

    And yet… PLOT TWIST! It’s awesome! I was snarking on it for the whole like 90-minute first act (Seriously, who does that?) but once he got to prison I was won over. Vaughn is great, the plot turns the screw just right so your blood lust feels fully justified, and, in contrast to its leisurely opening, its climax gets it done with satisfyingly ruthless efficiency. So I guess you can just throw out that writing rule book and replace it with a Post-It that says “Whatever works.” Great movie that I already want to see again.

  3. Yep. Thought you would love this one. This turned me into a Vince Vaughan fan.

  4. Zahler’s the real deal. It’s hard to be shocked by depictions of violence in film these days, but both Bone Tomahawk and Brawl made me legitimately yelp at the TV. Yes, “yelp,” an involuntary cry of surprise. Cowboys split in half…faces scrunched off of concrete…heads and limbs subjected to every sort of trauma.
    But these films aren’t mindless gorefests, they have deliberate pacing, characterization, and attention to detail. The dialogue is almost rhythmic. His movies would work as character pieces without the B-movie premises (but obviously it’s awesome that we can have both).
    I’ve read a few of his books as well, a couple westerns and a cop thriller, and they’re also superb.
    Apparently his next project has Vaughn and Mel Gibson in some sort of police thriller? Definitely looking forward to that.

  5. never thought Vince Vaughn was hungry and/or bored enough these days to have a full-on mid career reinvention, but i didn’t think that about Matthew McConaughey either and look what that got us. bring on the MoVaughnaissance.

  6. I loved this, and Zahler’s now a must-watch for me too. Reading a few of his interviews, I really admire the way he does things, and I was heartened to read that his plan is to keep putting out a new movie every year. If they are as good as this and Bone Tomahawk, that’s exciting. And the next one stars Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughan again, plus pretty much everyone else from this movie, and everything I’ve read about it makes it sound great.

    (One dumb pedantic nerdy note I probably shouldn’t even bring up, but here goes: Mustafa Shakir has been cast in Luke Cage’s next season, but has not appeared in that show as yet. Rob Morgan, who plays a guard later in the movie, has appeared in a couple Luke Cage episodes though. He has a recurring role in the Netflix Marvel shows as a frequently-abused local arms dealer.)

  7. Was lucky enough to see this in the theaters, as well as “Bone Tomahawk.” I think Zahler makes the kind of movies that should be seen on the big screen, and not because they are filled with amazing visuals and special effects, but because watching it in a theater forces you to sit through the so-called “boring parts” that a lot of people would fast-forward through on Netflix, but which make the movie all the more satisfying when we get to “the good stuff” in the third act. For instance, the scene at the beginning when he gets fired may seem unnecessarily long and without a payoff, but in retrospect the way everyone walks on eggshells around him tells us a lot about Vaughn’s character without saying anything.

  8. I somehow let BONE TOMAHAWK slip by me, so I’ll prolly just treat myself to both of these on the 26th and have a gory ol’ post-X-Mas. Can’t wait, they both sound right up my alley.

  9. I love that Udo Kier’s is only credited as ‘The Placid Man’, and that’s an essentially perfect summation of his character.

    “How disappointing.”

    Jennifer Carpenter is great in this too. Hell, so’s Don Johnson. Maybe the reason its so damn long is because everybody just killed their parts and Zahler, rightly, made the choice to keep every spare bit of footage in the film.

    I saw this theatrically as part of an audience of one, as it was perhaps the best film playing at that time I found that deeply disappointing.

  10. @Robert Ley: Do people really fast-forward through movies? Bloody hell… I’ve turned movies off before (Rogue One most recently) but have never just fast-forwarded through the “boring parts.”

    Huh.

  11. “I don’t like the tattoo on his head, though. What’s up with that?”

    I was wondering if this would bother you. It bothered me. It’s a White Supremacist tattoo. It’s no accident that arguably the film’s most aggressive and cruel bit of violence is against a black guard who didn’t do anything to the main character. It actually drags the film down for me, a lot. Not that the character is supposed to be wholly sympathetic, but, with the way the world is now, it’s a lot harder to find redemption in a character like this. Unless I’m reading the wrong thing into the film, which is possible.

  12. Maybe I just have a high tolerance for slower movies, but I didn’t feel bored at all during Bone Tomahawk. There was always something going on, and the dialogue itself was worth the price of admission. (One of my most hated movie criticisms is that people don’t talk that way in “real life.”) But also compared to directors like Bela Tarr and Tarkovsky, Bone Tomahawk went by at lightening speed. All these things are relative.

    I’m really looking forward to Brawl. Vince Vaughn can be hit or miss, but he does strike me as an actor who stretches himself. Over time I’ve come to appreciate him more.

  13. I’m with Ryan on this one. Not that I have seen it yet, but that I took one look at that skinhead/tattoo in the trailer and thought, ‘Yeah, if that’s what I think it is – some sort of identifier of white supremacy – I would have to ignore that to enjoy this and that is not the kind of thing that I can just ignore/enjoy right now.

  14. You guys don’t think the tattoo is supposed to be indicative of the kind of shady, violent past he walked away from at the beginning and not an accurate representation of who he is now? I think he doesn’t try to cover it because this is a guy who doesn’t hide from his mistakes. I think its placement on the back of his head is significant. It’ll always be part of who he is but it’s behind him and he’s moving forward.

    I think it’s a little unrealistic to expect our violent white trash outlaws to exist in a vacuum apart from the prejudices and stigmas that run rampant through that type of person due to socialization and ignorance. Obviously we don’t want to celebrate it but to assume that this guy in this time and this place with this history would have had nothing but totally enlightened views in his lifetime is just ridiculous.

    And he didn’t treat that black guard any harsher than he had to. Sure, he didn’t like the guy very much because the guy was the kind of toxic asshole who gets people hurt, but this was a performative act. His viciousness needed to be noted to get him to the next step of his plan. He was being methodical, not malicious.

  15. If someone ever methodically rips my arm backwards so that the bone comes out and then another guy maliciously does it later, I’ll try to remind myself the first was methodical, not malicious.

    You’re right that he was being vicious to get to the next step. But there are a lot less violent holds–e.g. chokes–than a modified kimura. I do take your point about ways to read the symbolism of the tattoo, but at the same time it’s not an easy write off.

  16. I’m not writing it off. He is a bad person. Maybe not all the way bad, but bad enough. I don’t care, though, because that makes him an interesting character.

    And who gives a shit about how the guard feels about his broken arm? Do we give a shit how a bank teller who didn’t do what Parker told him to feels about his busted nose? No. He got in the way and Parker fixed the problem. Same with Vaughn. Stories like this are amoral by nature. Expecting bad men to not do wrong isnt just madness, it’s also a disingenuous reading of the text.

  17. Also, maybe putting the guard in a nice, gentle, non-damaging chokehold means he gets sent to solitary and SPOILER his wife and unborn child get sent to the dump in several separate garbage bags, but maybe breaking some shithead guard’s arm off at the elbow is guaranteed to get him sent to supermax where he needs to go. You think he’s gonna balk at going that extra yard because he might feel bad about how the guard will feel about it? Were we watching the same character?

  18. @Mr. Majestyk: I agree a lot with those points. But they’re still a move away from “[Bradley] didn’t do anything harsher than he needed to” and the implicit moral/value judgment you were drawing based on how Vaughn went about being a violence machine at various points.

    I think Vaughn’s performance was great. I’ll be looking forward to more from Zahler. His movies’ pacing and dialogue are certainly unusual for this era of movie-making. And he seems to be a huge fan of shifting gears hard in the 3rd act. I thought this gear shift went smoother and worked better than the one in Bone Tomahawk. I looked at this movie’s approach more as depicting a character’s story and all the bad shit he has to do to try and rectify things rather than explicitly endorsing Bradley or overly sympathizing with him, so that’s how I read the movie, but maybe that impression would change on a re-watch. I’m looking forward to giving this one a re-watch soon.

  19. Chill out. I think you’re misunderstanding my point. I’m not saying the character’s psychology was off. It fit and worked. I’m pointing out in doing what what he did was probably more violent than necessary, considering Bradley had the guy so outmatched and that he still went on to fight and injure another enough to go to the hospital later he stairwell. I didn’t know what the tattoo meant the first time I watched it, so now there’s an extra interpretive layer to that action potentially. Obviously, you read this movie much more as an endorsement of this central character’s views and actions, whereas I read it more as depicting–albeit POV oriented–what he went through and the choices he made to fight to preserve what he believes in and values.

    Also, if we are going to pick a side, it’s not like that guard was a total dick. He actually notices Bradley is upset and changed after meeting with, and makes an apology attempt for how things started off. Yeah, I’m rooting for Vince Vaughn because he’s the narrative driver of the movie, he’s in a tough situation, the guard is an obstacle, and I want to see some action, badass shit go down in this movie. But it’s not like the guard was as much of a clear-cut, villainous fuck as the head guy at Redleaf.

  20. It’s something like 100 movies ago for me, but if I remember right, wasn’t the black guard kind to him? He could have just beaten the hell out of him without doing the arm breaking, without the permanent damage. I don’t know, man. Something else worth noting is that when the film goes off the deep end towards the end, the violence is so over-the-top as to seem much more like a cartoon: When the main villain has his limbs smashed, he doesn’t respond like a person would, with the screaming and the suffering. Then everyone’s face gets smashed in and they look like mannequins. The arm breaking, though, is really visceral and realistic and… I don’t know. The whole thing made the film repellent for me. YMMV, obviously.

  21. I don’t think endorsement has anything to do with it. I don’t think the movie approves of the character or disapproves of the character, and neither do I. He is what he is. I’m just saying that, when he broke that arm, he was trying to get sent to the worst supermax prison in the country. Nothing short of that would do. To accomplish that, he had to prove that he was more of a threat than a lesser prison could handle. So he had to do something really showy and awful to make sure that he didn’t receive a lighter punishment. Maybe there’s subtext there, but Vaughn definitely doesn’t act it that way. Sure, he doesn’t like the guard, but he doesn’t wish any harm on him. He acts it like he’s doing exactly what he thinks needs doing, no more or no less. And on a pure plot level, it makes sense for him to go that hard. Overkill was his only option.

  22. SPOILERS SPOILERS

    Let’s not forget the fact that the arm breaking incident (first one) happened immediately after he was told of his wife’s situation. Not surprised he went that extra mile.

    I didn’t think anything could beat John Wick 2 this year. So glad to be wrong. As someone who loves 70s crime films (and who prefers older movies in general), Zahler has managed to come the closest at capturing the minimalist, slow burn feel of those while also putting his own spin on it. Almost every character gets memorable dialogue, plot is handled with a subtlety unusual to the overblown, over-explained scripts of today, and the violence is both cathartic and jarring.

    Just needs to get a better cinematographer. Otherwise I loved it. Already wanted to see it due to Zahler, but Vern’s review got me so pumped I just flat out rented it. And for once (no offense Vern) it was pretty spot on.

  23. That’s a good point about the cinematography, Kris. The flat, gray, washed-out look might fit the material but it feels tired at this point. It’s the movie’s one weak link.

  24. Zahler’s next film is called ‘Dragged Across Concrete’. That is a badass title.

  25. Zahler doesn’t neglect titles.
    Brawl In Cell Block 99
    Bone Tomahawk
    A Congregation of Jackals
    Wraiths of the Southern Land
    And my personal favorite: Mean Business on North Ganson Street.

  26. Funny how there are already pretty clear threads here between this guy Zahler’s work. This and Tomahawk both are essentially about Men whose masculinity is a little too toxic for polite society (causing a crippling injury in BT, an arrest in Brawl), but it’s also what allows them to descend into a world of heightened, absurd, steroirdally toxic masculinity (inhuman, patriarchal cannibal territory, a series of increasingly cruel prison-industrial complexes) in order to SAVE THEIR WIFE. Hilariously, the pattern seems to be holding judging from the available info on DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE: bad cops get put on leave (too toxic for society), descend to criminal underworld (heightened toxicity), and two of the earliest actors cast after the leads were the women playing their wives. For the record, this is more of an observation than a criticism. I dig both of his movies pretty hard and def look forward to more of Zahler’s deliberate, character-based, wild-ass genre shit in the future.

  27. Mr. M – I agree with your logic. And, Goshua, I like your reading of Zahler’s work. But…it’s just me. I hope this weird ‘movie impotency’ (no horror, no intense drama, no to most action, etc.) that I’ve been suffering from clears up eventually…

    But, hey, I still get enjoyment from reading about movies! So I’ve got that, and this community, going for me :)

  28. I post this here because it overlaps with Majestyk’s response to my misgivings.

    The Punisher is likely racist. Also, if he’s not anti-mutant then he’s at least anti-X-Men. I’m not that into The Punisher*, but I’m still kind of bummed about that realization.

    * My favorite Punisher movie stars Dolph Lundgren.

  29. Man, thanks for recommending this. No LOGAN in my opinion but one of the better 2017s I have seen.

  30. Ok, just did a double bill of bone them this one. Holy shit! Intense flicks. Loved em both. He does strong character work with few brush strokes. And he enjoys heightened violence.

  31. Udo Kier´s all over the place! Sometimes he appears in movies in which you never expected him to be.
    Looking over Udo´s Filmography feels almost like staring on a “Where’s Waldo?” picture.
    I mean c´mon man: Ace Ventura Pet Detective, The Adventures of Pinocchio, Armageddon AND End of Days,
    Prince Valiant, The Lords of Salem and of course almost everything
    by Lars von Trier or Christoph Schlingensief (R.I.P) and on top of it he also spoke Professor Pericles in the animated reboot series of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated. He will also play a guy called Friedrich in Zahlers upcoming flick “Dragged Across Concrete” (what a great title!) next to Vaughn again and (drumroll) our infamous Mel tha Gibson.
    It seems that Kier is on a roll since the Mid-Sixties.

  32. God bless Udo Kier. That motherfucker has done everything! Eurotrash softporn shlock, German and American Television, acclaimed arthouse fair, kids TV shows, cartoon voice overs and big tentpole movies. He is maybe the only exploitation film icon, that my mother knows and who regularly gets interviewed by German feuilletons. Every actor should aspire to be Udo Kier.

  33. Holden, i hear you! My mother knows him too. Even grandma can relate too his face (mostly his eyes) but i am not quite sure if i would watch “UNITED TRASH” with them. :D

  34. Or SPERMULA.
    (I have no idea what that movie is about [although I have a suspicion], but in an interview Kier once said that in his opinion the only reason why that movie bombed, was they couldn’t advertise it, because nobody wanted to put posters that said SPERMULA on their bus stops.)

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