Little Box of Horrors: Brawl in Cell Block 99

Little Box of Horrors: Brawl in Cell Block 99

Vince Vaughn stages a comeback worthy performance in a film that was just about the exact opposite of what I was expecting.

Red Dead Redemption

I’ve got a full tank and an empty soul, so that must mean it’s time to drive to another lucky RedBox for another unlucky movie. This time I’m going to go for the cinematic hail mary: the last gasp of a has-been actor. I’m back from the RedBox in Saco, Maine (of course it was a Hannaford’s; Maine RedBoxes go with Hannaford’s like racism goes with internet comment sections); so let’s see which sad-sack I picked out from the unemployment line!

  1. 9/11 (2017): Charlie Sheen hasn’t been doing a lot of winning lately. He tries to get his tiger blood pumping again by cashing in on a national tragedy. Somehow I’m not surprised.
  2. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017): Vince Vaughn puts down the crappy buddy movies long enough to thump some skulls. I’m intrigued, but after watching the trailer I’m highly dubious that director S. Craig Zahler knows what a brawl technically is. This seems more like a melee, or even a donnybrook.
  3. 24 Hours to Live (2017): Ethan Hawke wants a second chance at acting. His character wants a second chance at life. The makers of this film want you to not take a second look at the cover, mistake this movie for 24: Live Another Day starring Keifer Sutherland, and give them $1.50.

I usually pick my prey via the website before I commit to a road-trip these days. Nothing like driving to east Bum-F*ck just to find that they got rid of their RedBox two months ago. While I was cross checking these movies at IMDb, I saw it. The page, so sad, it forced me to declare this month’s winner:

Brawl in Cell Block 99
Picture enlarged to highlight sadness.

That’s right: Vince Vaughn is not even on the cast page of the movie he’s starring in! That is so cold. It even made sure to list three other actors as “credited cast” to double down on the shade! Dead.

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Brawl in Cell Block 99Bradley Thomas (don’t worry Vince Vaughn, I got you) is not living his best life. He’s fired from his job and returns home just in time to catch his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) cheating on him. After a heart to heart, they decide to get their lives back on track: they are going to try for another baby, and Bradley is going to take Gill, the local drug dealer, up on his offer to be a runner.

Two years go by. Everything is rosy with the Thomases, who are expecting a baby girl. Then a deal with a Mexican cartel goes sideways and Bradley takes the rap. That isn’t enough for Eliazar, the Mexican Kingpin who lost a ton of meth in the bust. Bradley is given an ultimatum: pull off a hit while in prison, or Lauren will have her 6 month old fetus forcibly aborted.

Stone Hands

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is pretty logically consistent as long as you presuppose two things. Firstly, the police will hop out of the car guns blazing if you are Latino, but they won’t ever shoot Bradley even though Bradley wallops cops like he was in Grand Theft Auto. Wait a minute: Bradley is white. This all checks out.

Secondly, you have to realize that Bradley Thomas’ hands are made out of Vibranium. To the movie’s credit, they get that conceit out in the open real quick. When confronted with his wife’s infidelity, he calmly tells her to go inside… then he punches her car to death. No joke. I have the footage:

Brawl in Cell Block 99
Game Over!

Bradley Thomas has an anger inside him, which he keeps mostly in check by having a ruthlessly pragmatic mind and a sardonic wit. This character is perfect for Vince Vaughn, who has always had a sharp tongue and an imposing 6’5″ frame. It’s the subtle nuances he adds to his idiosyncratic character that tie this film together. He’s not snarky or a wise ass (like we’ve seen Vaughn play in his comedies); he’s a plain speaking, Cool-Hand Luke style character. Likewise, he’s not a Rocky Balboa lug: he might have dynamite hands but he fights in a no-nonsense manner that leverages his size and reach.

I haven’t liked Vaughn more than I did in this film. His hokey run in the early 00’s might have tarnished his rep, but I always knew he was an actor. He has range. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a synthesis of the serious and comedic roles he’s played in the past, perfected.

Throw-down Set to Motown

Brawl in Cell Block 99
Yeah, definitely suspicious.

Much like Bradley Thomas, this film is idiosyncratic. The Thomases might be white trash living in 2017, but the film goes with a 60’s-70’s Motown soundtrack to set an old school, almost blaxploitation vibe. While the prison aspects do evince a little  Cool Hand Luke, the rest of the movie is more like some mixture of Do the Right Thing and Shaft. While at first it might not feel appropriate (I mean, Bradley is quite possibly a reformed skinhead, that skull tatoo is a big red flag), the aesthetic gets to the heart of the film: a flawed yet principled man constantly compelled to do the wrong thing for the right reasons.

S. Craig Zahler keeps that surrealism going the entire film. Bradley is extremely fleshed out and believable; everyone else is a caricature bordering on cartoon. The Mexicans are highly stereotypical, so are the police they get in a gun fight with. The cops spout one liners like they are NPC’s in a Kane and Lynch game. Even Don Johnson’s prison guard is a walking, talking cliche straight out of the The State’s “Lowell Maximum Security Prison” sketch.

Brawl in Cell Block 99
“… as a ‘favor to me’. Now grab that hammer and start making ‘slaw!”

The absurdity might put some people off this film; I rather enjoyed it. It allows the brutality on display to exist almost as performance art. And there is a ton of violence in the back half of Brawl in Cell Block 99.

Pop and (B)Lock

Once Bradley gets Eliazar’s ultimatum things get uncivilized real fast. No longer interested in getting paroled, or even surviving his sentence, Bradley uses his cunning not to corral his anger, but to laser focus it on whoever he needs to go through to protect Lauren and the baby. Bones snap, skulls cave, and some poor mannequins get brutalized in a manner not seen since “The Life of Ricky“.

Brawl in Cell Block 99
My bad. That IS technically a Brawl. Carry on.

Once again, the prep work done to set the tone of the film allow this violence to work. The fights are visceral and have old school thwacks and thuds accompanying them. When Bradley hits someone in the ribs, you can tell some guy in a sound room just took a cricket paddle to a side of beef. You even get these old chop-sockey sound effects when it was dubious that the punch thrown actually found it’s target. In a more serious film, the choreography would be a knock. In a sillier film, the violence wouldn’t serve the narrative effectively. Brawl in Cell Block 99 finds the middle ground surprisingly well.

Jail Bait and Switch

While very good, Brawl in Cell Block 99 isn’t perfect. The first half of the film lingers just a touch longer than it should. The one dimensional nature of everyone not surnamed Thomas pulled me out of immersion every once in awhile; that gun battle between the Mexicans and the Police was pretty silly.

So, I liked Brawl in Cell Block 99, mainly because it subverted my expectations. The trailer made the film seem self-serious; it seemed a little too broody and dark. I was expecting a film that took it self so seriously that the results were going to be unintentional, cheesey goodness. Instead, S. Craig Zahler and Vince Vaughn outsmarted me: they knew how campy the film could be, and they leaned into it just enough to deliver a solid film. The wit made the emotional bits more poignant, the old school effects allowed the violence to be brutal while avoiding Hostel level torture-porn.

I was expecting spray cheese and got a deliciously funky Morbier instead. Good on them. I guess cheese and crackers go well together after all.

Brawl in Cell Block 99
“Who you calling cracker?”

 

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