‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ (2017): Cold, cruel, unpredictable exploitation actioner

The promise of Bone Tomahawk confirmed: Brawl in Cell Block 99 is cold, cruel, knowing genre fare.

By Paul Mavis

Shot on 8K high-def video in a fast 5 weeks, the unrated Brawl in Cell Block 99 had a cursory one week run in a few theaters this past October, before it was released for VOD (with this being awards season, the producers of the movie were kind enough to provide a screener disc for us here at Movies & Drinks). Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, and starring Vince Vaughn, Don Johnson, Jennifer Carpenter, Udo Kier, Mustafa Shakir, Marc Blucas, Willie C. Carpenter, and Dion Mucciacito, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a beautifully unpredictable prison exploiter, with an increasingly unsettled tone playing below the oversized melodramatics. Spectacularly gory in spots and remarkably tense all the way through, Brawl in Cell Block 99 also features a delicious repressed-rage turn from Vince Vaughn—a career-changer for him. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a winner for movie lovers who like their action smart and sick.

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Hulking, tattooed tow-truck driver Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is having one of those days: he’s been laid off; his garbage cans have been knocked over; and his lonely wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter, uncommonly good), is screwing some other guy. Working hard to control his simmering rage…after literally ripping apart her car with his bare hands, Bradley surprisingly forgives her, taking responsibility for his part in her betrayal. Vowing to make more money to allow him more time at home, Bradley decides he’ll go back to running drugs for dealer friend Gil (Marc Blucas).

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18 months later, Bradley and Lauren are set up pretty well in a swank new house, with a baby on the way (you may think he’s doing better…but director Zahler’s tomb-like icy blue and gray color palette and sterile mise-en-scene says different). Too bad, though, that the rot at the center of their lifestyle—Bradley’s blood money—comes to the surface when Gil insists that a wary Bradley participate in a drug buy with shady Mexican dealer Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito). The buy goes wrong when Bradley’s opposite numbers Roman (Geno Segers) and Pedro (Victor Almanzar) double cross him…right before the arrival of the cops. A gun battle ensues, and Bradley gets clean away, before he decides to help the cops by killing Pedro and wounding Roman.

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That honorable act doesn’t impress the government when Bradley refuses to give up Gil, so he’s sentenced to seven years in a medium-security prison. Too bad he can’t just do his time at this “country club.” Eleazar has kidnapped Lauren, and sends a message to Bradley through his Euro-sleaze mouthpiece (Udo Kier): get sent to the maximum security hellhole Redleaf and kill prisoner Christopher Bridge, or Eleazar will instruct his Korean abortionist to sever all the limbs of captive Lauren’s fetus…while still keeping his unborn daughter alive. In the face of this incomprehensible horror, Bradley has no choice, so he assaults his friendly guards and gets sent to Redleaf, where Warden Tuggs (suave Don Johnson) introduces Bradley to a new level of pain and obedience. Will Bradley kill his target and save his wife and unborn baby?

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If you’ve seen as many movies and TV shows as I have, after awhile you begin to appreciate projects that surprise and trick you out of your expectations. Brawl in Cell Block 99 certainly did that to me. I can’t think of a prison picture I haven’t seen, going all the way back to those marvelous Warner Brother outings from the 1930s (thank you, Bill Kennedy at the Movies). So the conventions are utterly familiar to me. However, I couldn’t tell where the hell Brawl in Cell Block 99 was going half the time, and that’s as good a sign as any to me of a director who shows his deep love of a genre by taking all the tropes and doing something new, something twisted with them.

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Now, I don’t think Vince Vaughn’s code and honor-bound Southern con is as original a creation as some of the contemporary critics of Brawl in Cell Block 99 seem to say. Anyone who’s at all familiar with Ford’s or Hawks’ Westerns will find in there plenty of taciturn, monolithic, violent-yet-ethical variations on Bradley (do these new critics know that movies existed before Tarantino quit his video clerk job?). When Bradley solemnly intones to his dealer boss Gil, “I want to watch my baby take its first breath. That’s a moment,” it could easily be a line from a John Ford oater; and when Bradley throws away his own personal safety to go back and help the cops against Ramon and Pedro, he’s referencing every Hawksian hero who put a hard Hemingway code of moral conduct before personal expediency.

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What is fresh about Brawl in Cell Block 99 is its rigid, detached stylization in service of some unexpected convention-twisting story angles. Zahler, who was a novelist and screenwriter before he was a director, knows that all the camera flash in the world won’t rescue a tired, formulaic script, and to his credit, he keeps jaded exploitation viewers like myself constantly off-guard here. The very first scene is a good example. When Vaughn’s menacingly shaved and tattooed head approaches the auto yard with his boss and other employees warily waiting outside, we immediately think Vaughn’s a “problem employee” from whom the boss and other employees expect trouble when he’s told he’s fired. But he’s not. No explosion. Nothing. He’s clearly upset…but he keeps his cool (even when he breaks the key off in his locker) and leaves. No drama. He’s been fired due to costs, not for anything personal.

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Zahler continues to yank that rug out from under us when Vaughn arrives home. After the day he’s had (he’s going to have to pick up all that garbage, too…), we fully expect him to at least yell at his cheating wife, and maybe even cuff her once or twice. Nope. He tells her to go inside before he proceeds to destroy her car, by hand (it’s a great funny/scary scene, one that reminded me of a similarly quietly enraged-but-controlled Steve McQueen, destroying a police car via pump shotgun in Peckinpah’s The Getaway). Once in the house, he actually listens to why his wife cheated…and then asks if they can start over (unheard of in this kind of exploiter). No punching, no throwing things around the crappy living room. Already by this early point, Brawl in Cell Block 99 has us off-kilter.

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The movie’s best trick is saved for its middle section, when Vaughn first goes to prison. By this juncture in the story, we’re at least empathetic to his plight—even though he’s a drug dealer—because he selflessly saved those cops’ lives (that crucial plot device is Brawl in Cell Block 99’s weakest link; we’re not sure we buy Vaughn’s sacrifice. Perhaps having Vaughn go back to kill Pedro and Ramon out of disgust for their unprofessional, un-code-like behavior would have rung more true).

So when Vaughn is sent to the relatively calm and clean medium-security “Fridge,” we’re relieved he won’t be beset by all the hellish prison movie conventions we just knew we were going to see, given the movie’s purple prose title: no power-mad warden, no vicious, pummeling guards, no threat of homosexual rape. It looks like the worst he’s going to endure in the “Fridge” is bad food and ill-fitting slippers. At the same time, we’re wondering: how is there going to be a brawl in this sleepy prison, where the lazy guards joke about your height and the size of your manhood, and your avuncular prison mentor Willie C. Carpenter thoughtfully gives you candy bars because he knows you’re going to be hungry in the middle of the night? Will the “brawl” come when violent Vaughn blows this relatively sweet deal? Zahler sets us up for all kinds of denied pleasures at the “Fridge,” including needling guard Mustafa Shakir…who turns out to be decent enough to apologize to Vaughn for pressing him, as well as Zahler prepping us for some cheap prison jollies, making a point of having Carpenter go on about the prison counselor’s big breasts…before Zahler films the actress tightly buttoned up in an impenetrable black shirt.

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It’s only when Vaughn is forced into getting himself transferred to scary Redleaf Prison, that Brawl in Cell Block 99 becomes a bit more familiar…and certainly more viscerally exciting. Choreographing a long, loose-limbed fight between Vaughn and Andre and the other guards, one that quiets and volumes back up over several locations (its realistic blocking reminded me of Karlson’s great, sweaty, grunting, bloody garage brawl in Joe Don Baker’s Framed), Zahler shows a detached, hands-off visual style that’s the antithesis of most of today’s zooming, phony fightwork, with needlessly peripathetic camerawork and micro-second-long cuts that make no sense. Zahler just hangs back and lets his actors beat on each other, and the effect is all the more primitive for that calm, unobstructive directorial gaze.

Had Brawl in Cell Block 99 merely stayed in that style and tone for the rest of the movie, it would have been at most an enjoyable modern-day prison exploiter. However, Zahler shows true transformational intent when he takes the final third of the movie and heads straight into Jesus Franco land (how the hell did the critics miss the Franco connection? Even Zahler’s title references Franco’s infamous WIP classic, 99 Women). Vaughn is transported from a clean college dorm prison to a ridiculously unrealistic medieval castle, for god’s sake, complete with sinisterly calm psycho warden Don Johnson, dungeon-like stone cells, and even an honest-to-god barbaric torture chamber, where Vaughn is hooked up to an electroshock belt straight out of The Invisible Fence Dog Meets the Million Eyes of Su-Muru. All we need is Shirley Eaton, Herbert Lom and various assorted semi-clad Euro-beauties for a bona fide Franco-fest.

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Since Brawl in Cell Block 99 has been highly stylized in terms of Zahler’s clinical detachment, cinematographer Benji Bakshi’s muted, steel-engraving frames and the denatured production design, this tonal switch isn’t nearly as jarring as it reads. It’s just a further ramping up of Zahler’s slow-boil fever as he punishes and punishes and punishes Vaughn’s character, who in turn keeps right on keeping on, through one explosive, cathartic outburst of hilariously sick brutality after another.

Zahler’s a smart director; Brawl in Cell Block 99’s very first shot—Vaughn crushing a half-full beer can under his truck wheels—foreshadows one of the best whack-job kills here when Vaughn stomps a guy’s face and jaw like a month-old pumpkin (you want me to reach even more? It’s a loaded symbol: the beer can audience exploiter crushed by an artistic approach. How come I’m not teaching this pretentious garbage to gullible students?). All throughout the movie are funny/sick allusions we can go back to and ponder, my favorite being all those arms that Vaughn grotesquely breaks—we love that stuff, right?—before we realize Vaughn’s doing the same thing the abortionist is threatening to do to his unborn fetus (ain’t laughing now, are you?).

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I don’t think it gets any better for laugh-out-loud “Oh NO WTF!” kinds of moments than the now-infamous “scraped face” kill (the face reveal reminded me of that molten silvered face in Jim Brown’s The Slams). And certainly, we need those over-the-top action scenes to vent our increased suspense over where, exactly, Zahler has been going for almost two hours. I suspect those are the scenes that many streaming viewers will remember and talk about after watching Brawl in Cell Block 99, and that’s fine: I’ll bet Zahler takes great delight in coming up with those outrageous practical effects. However, if you want more than mere head-crunching action, Brawl in Cell Block 99 delivers those extras, too: a street-wise, frequently humorous script, an unexpected, rather touching romance, a revelatory turn by Vince Vaughn, and stone cold direction that’s alternately dour and hilariously perverse. What the hell else do you need in an exploitation actioner?

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

The Edpionage Filmography by Paul Mavis

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