There’s only one word to sum up Vince Vaughn’s performance in this movie – supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! For an artist who had been delegated to play repetitive roles (lead or secondary) in comedies (or romedies) throughout his entire career, Vince Vaughn’s act in ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ comes across as a reincarnation, the seeds of which, were faintly planted in 2016’s ‘Hacksaw Ridge’. This S. Craig Zahler directorial is a refreshingly entertaining throwback to some of the glorious grindhouse flicks churned out by Hollywood in the 20th century.
‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ is an excellent follow-up to Zahler’s 2015 cannibal-western ‘Bone Tomahawk’ (which is already on its way to become a cult-classic) in more ways than one. The action-choreography is surprisingly real-time, the violence unflinching (definitely a step up from ‘Bone Tomahawk’, and will have viewers cringing on plenty of instances). Zahler’s notion of the human bone is one that cracks like a weak tree-branch or a brittle ceramic pot. We have some sensational (skull &) bone-breaking on display here, especially in the latter half. If the decapitation scenes in ‘Bone Tomahawk’ were any indication, Zahler’s sophomore venture is literally off-the-chain.
Bradley (Vaughn), a tow-truck driver gets laid off and goes back to his (earlier) drug-peddling ways while rebuilding a healthy relationship with his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) who’s second- time pregnant (the first having been a miscarriage), eventually screwing up an assignment (with seemingly hefty payoffs) and is subjected to jail-time. The boss, whose shipment was caught in the bust (plus additional reasons expounded later), kidnaps Loren and threatens to kill her and their unborn child if his demand isn’t met – that an inmate be finished off in prison. The outcome is a brutal delight for ‘grindhouse‘ fanatics. Limbs are ruptured, skulls are stomped on, and knees are pierced with shards of glass.
Another appreciable aspect is the absence of lengthy monologues (from protagonists, antagonists or anyone in between) – the exchanges are concise and very much to-the-point. Bradley’s responses have bravura written all over them (much like Kurt Russell’s in ‘Bone Tomahawk) – he’s pretty much an unstoppable force of machismo. Not even Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson of ‘Miami Vice’) can tame Bradley, who’s also a former boxer (a touché done right), when on a rampage.
Set in an exceedingly grey universe crammed with savagery, Zahler has also managed to weave a tale that focuses on an intricate husband-wife relationship. The scene towards the end where Bradley converses with his unborn child over the phone is thoroughly touchy (and executed to perfection by a spectacularly grounded Vaughn), and reminds us how good Zahler is, at pulling off dramatic moments. The prison ambiance looks uber authentic (the faeces-filled WC, the kidney-taser belt, the dimly-lit cells..all of it), and the supervisors mercilessly hostile. Plus, Vaughn’s appearance was spot-on, and the stiff demeanor sported by him was exactly what the character warranted.
There are few (minor) issues however: the film’s title could have actually been something artsier; the climax, although one that provides proper closure, feels a little rushed. But the pros definitely overshadow the drawbacks, so go ahead and give this one a viewing if you like your movies bloody violent and backed by a solid screenplay (à la Jim Mickle’s ‘Cold in July’ or Jeremy Saulnier’s ‘Blue Ruin’). I can’t wait to see Zahler’s next – ‘Dragged Across Concrete’, featuring some of the lead cast from this movie, along with the magnificent addition of Mel Gibson.
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