Comedy movies headed up by action stars was still a mysterious, uncharted land back in the 80’s. Eventually Schwarzenegger would dispel the myth that muscle-bound killing machines couldn’t do funny with Twins, pile-driving the box office for the sum of over $200 million. Macho badasses juxtaposed into hilarious scenarios has now become a bit of a sub-genre unto itself. The Pacifier finds Navy SEAL Vin Diesel looking after some kids, is just one example. Dwayne Johnson’s entire back catalogue is pretty much the same. So why can’t it be done the other way around? Why can’t comedians become badasses?
Well it’s hard to imagine Jim Carrey becoming a ninja and massacring loads of people. But it’s probably no easier to imagine Arnold giving birth to a child either. I guess ass-kickers have to have that difficult to attain quality of actually appearing like they could kick your ass. Sensei Steven Seagal may be hilariously overweight and in need of a hair transplant, but I’m 99% sure he’d break my wrists were I ever to cross him. I can’t say the same of Ben Stiller though.
Vince Vaughn is trying to buck that trend. He’s tried some badass stuff in the past, playing a slightly decent role in Jurassic Park 2, and was decidedly good in the follow up to True Detective. There he played a hard-but-fair gangster who becomes involved in a local political cover up. While True Detective 2 was widely bemoaned for not being as good as it’s predecessor (a herculean task if ever there was one), I thought Vaughn really shed his comedy skin.
Let’s face it though, we really know him for stuff like Swingers, Starsky & Hutch, or the Wedding Crashers.
So when you’re told he’s the lead dude in a movie called Brawl in Cell Block 99, you raise an eyebrow. First things first. He’s bald, with a big old cross tattooed on the back of his head. He’s also in decent shape. He’s not utterly ripped, but nor is he packing much flab either. He looks tough. And he’s decisively straight talking with a very clear image of the world and how it works. As “Bradley Thomas” puts it, he isn’t the lucky sort. He never got the “cream” as much as he should have.
He’s working day-to-day at an auto repair shop, driving a shitty Pontiac, and supporting a wife who recently miscarried. Only today he gets laid off (the economy). It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but no ones fault. Things go from bad to worse when he figures out his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter – Faster) is seeing someone else. You can see the fire simmering beneath the surface. He doesn’t slap her around though. Instead he commands her inside before proceeding to beat the shit out of her own car with his bare hands, Street Fighter 2 bonus stage style.
Baring some mild CGI (gun shots, some blood and one shot involving a cell door), all the effects look physical. I love this shit. And I love it when they somehow create an effect where you have no idea how the hell they did it. I don’t know how they rigged that car (if they even did at all), but seeing a guy smash a vehicle with his fists is impressive.
Calmer, he heads inside to mop up his marriage and the blood pouring from his hands. A rational guy, he figures it’s not all her fault, and decides to forgive her. They’ll try for another baby and he’ll go back working for Gil, the local benevolent drug kingpin.
Eighteen months later and things are looking peachy. Bradley has traded in his Pontiac for some beefy American muscle car, Lauren is six months pregnant, and they’re both living in some nice suburban house. Going back to a life of crime seems to be working out. So what he has to occasionally look at the odd crackhead on the street. Bradley is a smart guy, and he isn’t going to be ignorant of the cost of his recent happiness. Instead he chooses to compartmentalize and rationalize that kind of shit. He’s got a wife and soon-to-be-daughter to feed.
Both we and he are suspicious when Gil brings in a new drug connection to work with, Eleazar. He wants Bradley to accompany two of his goons on a pickup. Bradley is reluctant, declaring that the big guy, Roman, is using. We’ve seen how Bradley does business. He’s super, super careful. He knows what is at stake. Eleazar admits that Roman was using, but is two years clean. Even Gil has to admit that Bradley only recognizes such a weakness because he himself was once susceptible too. He offers three months paid leave for his top drop man as compensation for doing him a favour just this once. Bradley, against his better judgement, accepts.
Of course the pickup goes south. Bradley, a picture of utter unsuprisement, sides with the cops, killing one of Eleazar’s guys and putting down Roman. Yeah, he’s your typical criminal with a heart of gold. The way he see’s it, why should stupid dumb newbie cop get greased because they happened across two trigger-happy career scumbags? But this ethics lesson is going to come at a cost to old Bradley.
He knows he’s gonna do time. He isn’t gonna spill the beans on no one, and figures he’ll get four years. He don’t want Lauren at the hearing, nor does he want their baby girl to see him behind bars. They’ll figure out some story about why he was away (he was touring with The Grateful Dead or something). While it sucks, Bradley seemingly has it figured.
We’re an hour in at this point before he’s even hit prison. This is because director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) has taken the time to slowly build his characters and their story. While there is some violence and mounting tensions leading up to Bradley’s incarceration these moments are doled out sparingly, as if being held off only for after the main meal treat, like some sweet-ass dessert. Strawberry trifle or some such.
Despite his confidence, the judge hands him down a seven year sentence at some leafy green minimum-security prison. The guards seem nice enough, he gets shown around by some old timer called Leftie, and everyone is dead keen on him joining the boxing team. He’s pissed he’s gonna spend seven years here though. Deeply pissed.
I really “felt it” when that prison door closed behind him that first time. I was with Bradley. He’s a criminal, a bad guy if you look at it in pure black and white. There’s plenty of irony sprinkled about which Bradley ignores – the odd crackhead on the street, or the fact that Leftie got sent down for double murder due to being wasted at the time. While Bradley has made the best of a cruddy hand in life, there are always reminders that what he was doing was wrong and he’s now paying for it. But still, man, I felt that door close! I could feel the isolation and the horror. Shit, it’s not that bad of a cell either.
But we’ve still not heard shit about the legendary cell block 99. That’s about to change.
He get’s a visitor from Lauren’s doctor. Or rather The Placid Man (Udo Kier – Blade), masquerading as the doctor. He’s an agent of Eleazar, who is pissed that Bradley betrayed him and cost the firm $4 mil. As revenge he’s taken Lauren hostage and threatens to set The Abortionist on her. This sick prick claims he can snip the limps from an unborn baby.
The Placid Man certainly has Bradley’s full attention and lays it down real clear for our skinheaded hero. He has one way to repay his debt – by killing a guy called Christopher Bridge. Who is Christopher Bridge? Just some other dude who has invoked the ire of Eleazar. Where is Christopher Bridge? In Red Leaf prison, the worst of the worst in correctional institutions. And Christopher Bridge is on the big boy wing there, in Cell Block 99. If Bradley kills him, his wife and child live.
This shit is on.
It’s a great quandary that Zahler has put him in. We know that he’s going to have to do some bad stuff to get sent to Red Leaf, further increasing his sentence. What makes it worse is that everyone at this prison seems pretty cool. No one has tried to slip the old one eye during shower time or anything.
After causing somewhat of a ruckus (I won’t go into the gory details), Bradley is finally sent to Red Leaf. As one con puts it, it’s the kind of place that was built before human rights got invented.
It’s lorded over by the twisted Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson – Django Unchained), who chews on cigars like Hannibal Smith.
Red Leaf really is a prison of nightmares. It would certainly pass no hygiene or basic humanitarian tests. Indeed, the toilet of his room is clogged with someone else’s shit. Good luck using that for seven years. Worse still, he’s gonna have to graduate up the ranks to finally get to Cell Block 99, a secret, off-the-books wing where the worst of the worst get sent to die. At least it’s gonna be a bloody ride into Hell for old Bradley…
I’ll admit it, this was not the kind of movie I was expecting. But I enjoyed it. Vince Vaughn is perhaps the reason why I liked it as much as I did, but we’ll get into that in a bit.
First let’s talk about what I actually expected from this film. Over on the social media, I heard nothing but comments on how brutal and violent this movie is. And it is. It reminded me of David Cronenberg stuff thanks chiefly to all the mildly ludicrous physical effects present. But it’s not a sci-fi or horror movie. It’s more along the lines of something like a History of Violence, where we witness what we believe is a reasonable guy doing extraordinarily violent acts.
So yeah it’s violent. But I expected lots of it violence. Like a balls-to-the-wall, 90 minute Raid 2 prison fight sequence levels of bloody carnage. This was not the case. Instead, it’s paced very methodically. It really establishes Bradley as a character, and gives us a reason to root for him.
Another preconception I had was that it was going to be like that badass bit in the Netflix Daredevil series where the Punisher has to run a gauntlet of prisoners. For a TV show, it’s ballsy as hell.
Or maybe it was going to be some clever Oceans Eleven shit, where Bradley would cook up a brawl as a smokescreen to get to the guy he needed to kill. Again, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not like this. In fact there’s not even what I’d consider a brawl. When I think brawl I think of loads of people having some bar fight. People smashing shit over each others heads and backs. Even waitresses getting punched in the face. Etc etc. There’s a brawl in Crocodile Dundee. Not in this.
I at least expected some screw to at one point to shout over an intercom “Brawl in cell block 99, brawl in cell block 99!”. Nope.
So what it actually turns out to be is a bit surprising, and may turn a number of people off. Perhaps the title is a bit misleading, but it’s actually so damn catchy. I’d want to make a movie called Brawl in Cell Block 99 too, had I come up with that little moment of inspiration first.
This is a low budget, grungey kind of flick. You’ve got the somber, washed out colour scheme, a lot of hand-held camera work and a funky sound track. Were it made in the 80’s, it would probably have been an VHS video nasty. But that’s not to it’s discredit. Just because it’s cheap and hand-held does not mean it’s poorly made. It’s not some cruddy direct-to-video nonsense action movie. The framing may be simplistic, but it’s all functional. The action is easy to read, and the camera doesn’t dart about or move enough to be distracting.
The acting is also top notch. Vince Vaughn pulls this off. He’s not a badass like Van Damme or Stallone. But he has a straight talking charisma matched up with a decent tough-guy fighting style. I will admit that some of the fights do seem a bit “choreographed”, and maybe even a little slow. But they’re clear, and they look painful. Interestingly, there is hardly any blood, but there is plenty of physical effects, like bones being broken, jaws literally smashed to pieces and so forth. In some moments it sort of struck me as a Western remake of Riki-O: The Story of Ricky, at least in spirit.
Okay, it’s not that mental.
The rest of the cast is strong, with Jennifer Carpenter really upping the emotional stakes with her performance. Udo Kier is deliciously evil as always, his accent perfectly striking a balance between mysterious and sheer horror. And Don Johnson! What a bastard! He played a comedy throw-away bad guy role in Django, but here he is a real shithead. It’s a very dark turn for the legendary TV cop actor.
It’s a slow burn of a movie, especially with such an impressive and bombastic sounding title. It’s certainly a modern day cult film in the making. I do suspect some low forehead types won’t enjoy it, and it’s deffo not conducive to a romantic night in with the missus. It ticks all the other boxes though.
So forget thinking Vince Vaughn can’t cut it as a badass. And don’t worry about the skin-head/crucifix tattoo thing. This isn’t a nazi movie. Bradley seems like a pretty reasonable guy. He probably wasn’t always though. Knuckle-smashing, jaw-disintegrating, face-peeling, decapitation-by-kicking all awaits you in Brawl in Cell Block 99. Get it watched.