S. Craig Zahler burst onto the scene in 2015 with the bracing genre fusion Bone Tomahawk, a wildly idiosyncratic horror western that lavished as much attention on its flavorful characters and dialogue as on the blood-curdling cannibal violence of its genuinely startling climax. The writer-director sticks with the slow-burn approach, along with the gleeful ransacking of genre tropes, in his follow-up prison thriller, Brawl in Cell Block 99, even if the earlier work’s off-kilter humor is largely missing. Still, the movie reinvents Vince Vaughn as a human demolition machine who’s also a devoted family man, and it should find favor among pulp-hungry fanboys.
The title is somewhat misleading since it’s less of a brawl than an intermittent series of bone-crunching skirmishes that erupt out of simmering crime drama. Zahler effectively works around Vaughn’s limited acting range by casting him as Bradley Thomas, a stoical hulk with a cross tattooed on his shaved skull, a high tolerance for pain and a natural flair for dishing it out. Faced with a distressing setback, Bradley describes how he’s feeling as, “South of OK. North of cancer.”
In the opening scene, Bradley (with his customary hint of Southern formality, he regularly corrects folks who call him Brad) gets laid off from his auto service job and then comes home to discover his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been having an affair for the past three months. Bradley works out his anger by wrecking her car with his bare hands, before stepping inside to discuss their future more calmly. Their respective history with alcohol and drugs is acknowledged with minimal detail, and the downturn in their marriage is traced to Lauren’s miscarriage. Bradley owns his role in their unhappiness and takes decisive steps from that moment to build a better life as they try again to start a family.
Flash forward 18 months and they have moved from their dump of a place into a luxury home, taking only the American flag proudly hung over the porch. Lauren is pregnant again and Bradley has returned to the more lucrative field of drug running, handling heroin, crystal and cocaine for his old boss Gil (Marc Blucas). Going against his instincts, Bradley teams up with the goons of Mexican smuggler Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito) on a major pickup. When that goes south in a shootout with cops, he reveals himself to be “a man of principle,” as one detective later puts it. But his refusal to finger associates lands him a seven-year jail sentence.
While Zahler steadily builds a sense of dread for the caged carnage to come, he’s in no hurry to get there. The director takes time to fortify the union between Bradley and Lauren before he gets put away, and to savor incidental pleasures like a typically droll turn from Fred Melamed as a prison processing officer whose soft-spoken superciliousness shows zero patience for incivility. We also learn through a prickly exchange with a guard at the medium-security facility that brawny Bradley was once a boxer.
The turning point when the intensity gets cranked up comes roughly an hour into the movie, with a prison visit from Eleazar’s icy Euro-trash henchman, played by — who else? — Udo Kier. He informs Bradley of the creative ways in which they will harm not only Lauren but also his unborn baby unless Bradley gets himself transferred to a high-security prison and eliminates a particular inmate.
Having no choice and being a man of action, not words, Bradley swiftly hospitalizes a few random guards and soon finds himself at the gates of a stone fortress where the silky-sadistic Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson) takes great delight in admitting he missed the memo about humane treatment of the incarcerated. But identifying his target proves more complicated than Bradley anticipated in a nightmarish scenario that keeps getting more twisted.
Fight choreographer Drew Leary stages the clashes with brutal efficacy, and Zahler refrains from the usual frenetic editing tricks, resulting in unflinching scenes of explosive violence that are highly physical and invigoratingly vicious. Not to mention quite hurty. In some of the most Grand Guignol episodes, human heads are treated like roaches underfoot.
Without going the martial arts route, Zahler appears to tip his hat to hyperviolent Korean cinema as well as Indonesia’s The Raid movies in terms of the number of limbs snapped, though he keeps the actual body count relatively contained. The director also serves as co-composer with Jeff Herriott, and the smooth, ersatz-’70s soul songs they contribute — recorded by vintage artists like The O’Jays and Butch Tavares, and heard mainly on car stereos throughout — evoke blaxploitation pictures, even if that influence is not much in evidence elsewhere.
What Kurt Russell and Matthew Fox did for facial hair in Bone Tomahawk, Johnson does here in a juicy featured role as a callous tyrant with a magnificent silver mustache, who keeps his slick, all-black outfits crisp and unsoiled, chomping on cigars while his guards dole out barbaric punishments. (Don’t even ask what a “stun belt” is.) Despite being billed as “The Placid Man,” Kier’s character appears to relish describing the skin-crawling techniques employed by a Korean abortion specialist on Eleazar’s payroll, which will make many audiences squirm. But sadly, there’s no match among the characters here for the amusing interplay between Russell’s unflappable sheriff and Richard Jenkins’ loquacious deputy in Zahler’s previous film.
Enduring endless new variations on humiliation and cruelty in between stunning bouts of retaliation, Vaughn leaves no doubt as to the lengths to which Bradley will go for the sake of his wife and child. And while it’s unfortunate that the character’s patriotism and his facility for stomping out villainous Mexicans risk making him a hero for the Trump fringe (a factor likely to be fanned by Vaughn’s casting), ultimately, it’s Bradley’s selfless love for his family that gives him a tragic grandeur. Carpenter doesn’t have a lot to do, but she conveys the frayed edges of Lauren’s raw experience along with a renewed commitment to her man, and gets her own brief badass moment late in the film, meaning the bloodletting isn’t quite an exclusively male domain.
While Brawl in Cell Block 99 remains gripping and unpredictable throughout, the two-and-a-quarter-hour running time does feel a tad bloated, and the movie might benefit from being trimmed by 20 minutes or so into a tauter edit. But the bigger issue is its flat video look, especially considering the scorching colors and expansive compositions of the desert landscapes in Bone Tomahawk. The same cinematographer, Benji Bakshi, may have been going here for a cheapo grindhouse style, with lots of murky, low-light scenes and washed-out tones. But there are some places where affection for genre history can be a liability. That said, audiences on board for the bruising bloodbath won’t be disappointed.
Distributor: RLJ Entertainment
Production companies: Assemble Media, Cinestate, IMG Films, XYZ Films
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas, Mustafa Shakir, Thomas Guiry, Dion Mucciacito, Geno Segers, Willie C. Carpenter, Fred Melamed, Clark Johnson
Director-screenwriter: S. Craig Zahler
Producers: Jack Heller, Dallas Sonnier
Executive producers: Will Staeger, Michael Antinoro, Rebecca Sanhueza, Marco J. Henry, Nate Bolotin, Nick Spicer, Jack Nasser, Joseph Nasser
Director of photography: Benji Bakshi
Production designer: Fredrick Waff
Costume designer: Vanessa Porter
Music: Jeff Herriott, S. Craig Zahler
Editor: Greg D’Auria
Fight choreographer: Drew Leary
Casting: Matthew Maisto
Sales: WME, XYZ Films
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)