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New Release Review - BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 review
When his pregnant wife is abducted, a prisoner is ordered to carry out a hit on the inside.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: S Craig Zahler

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 poster


We're not supposed to get movies like Brawl in Cell Block 99 at this time of year. Autumn is meant to be reserved for awards-baiting tales of the human spirit, not a movie in which a morally dubious, hulking, slap-headed protagonist beats seven shades out of practically every other character that appears on screen. But S Craig Zahler's followup to his outstanding debut, last year's Bone Tomahawk, is the sort of film that would be competing for awards if they really were based on the craft of filmmaking rather than political point-scoring. Depending where you stand, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is either an oasis in the desert or a pebble in the shoe of the awards season schedule. It's the best movie I've seen in 2017, though I'm not sure I could actually recommend it to anyone.

The story is a refreshingly simple one. In the performance of his career, Vince Vaughn is Bradley Thomas, an eloquent thug who has fashioned a comfortable life for himself and his pregnant wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter). The couple lives in an enviably large house, the stars and stripes fluttering on the lawn. Were it not for the white supremacist tattoo stamped on the back of Bradley's head, they could be the picture of suburban contentment.

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99

That contentment is disrupted when Bradley is asked to accompany a pair of hot-headed Mexican gangsters on a drug pickup. Hearing the sound of approaching sirens, Bradley dumps his bag, but his companeros rush into a shootout with the cops. Like a good white American, Bradley decides to take the side of the boys in blue, but despite the cops admitting his intervention saved lives, he's sentenced to seven years in a medium security prison for his troubles.

Bradley awakes on his first morning inside to a surprise meeting with a sinister individual (Udo Kier, named in the credits simply as 'The Placid Man') who informs him that Lauren has been abducted by the Mexican druglord whose operation Bradley just threw a spanner into the works of. The Placid Man leaves Bradley in no doubt as to the severity of what will happen to his wife and unborn child if he doesn't follow a specific order - murder a fellow prisoner. Trouble is, said prisoner happens to be resident in a different facility - the notorious Redleaf maximum security prison.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is paradoxically like nothing I've ever seen before and like a whole lot of movies I've seen before. It feels like a filmmaker spilling his guts regarding his cinematic obsessions and influences. It's like seeing every '70s exploitation movie flash before your eyes in the moments before your head is crushed by a steel-capped boot. It opens like a Michael Mann movie and ends like a Godfrey Ho movie, yet somehow the transition is seamless. By the climax you're not sure how you ended up there, but you know you've been taken for a ride by a master filmmaker.

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99

For all his grindhouse influences, in his first two films, Zahler has established himself as a unique presence in American cinema. If you told me Zahler hadn't watched a movie made after 1978, I'd believe you. His films may explore the down and dirty territory of drive-in fare, but they're shot with the classicism of Ford and Hawks. One of the most striking things about Zahler's pictures (pictures sounds somehow more fitting than movies or films in this case) is how often he frames his actors from head to toe.

His characters talk incessantly - but never to dole out lazy plot points - and they're always worth listening to. He gave Richard Jenkins some of the best lines of last year as the Walter Brennan inspired old coot of Bone Tomahawk, and here he gifts Vaughn with the sort of character every actor dreams about. Like Snake Plissken, Bradley Thomas is always the smartest asshole in the room, and his witty insouciance makes a mockery of that silly old claim that sarcasm is the lowest form of humour.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 runs for 132 incredibly short minutes, and Zahler uses the time to allow his characters to breathe. Supporting players are given meatier roles here than the leads of many films, and were it not for the magnificence of Vaughn's turn, the show might momentarily have been stolen by the great Fred Malamed as a laconic prison official in one of the film's most hilarious scenes.

After Bone Tomahawk, Zahler probably could have hired any number of respected cinematographers, but he reunites with Benji Bakshi, who genuinely comes from an exploitation background with titles like Big Ass Spider and the horror anthology Holidays on his CV. Bakshi does some wonderful work here, and his use of Vaughn's bald pate as a source of reflected light is ingenious, one of those minor details only exploitation movies treat you to. His colour schemes, transitioning from the sun-baked LA streets to the muddy interiors of Redleaf, play an integral part in the storytelling, creating the sense that Bradley is on a journey into the depths of hell itself.

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99

As much as I adore this modern masterpiece, who could I recommend it to? Every 10 minutes or so Zahler seems to test the audience's endurance in a variety of ways, and I imagine screenings of Brawl will experience their fair share of walkouts. Some will take issue with the old-fashioned, unhurried pacing. For others it will be the over-the-top violence, made all the more brutal by some of the most outrageous foley work I've ever heard. If you demand substantial female characters, the lack of agency afforded Lauren, the only woman who appears on screen, will be maddening. And then there's the murky racial aspect, with the movie's white hero dishing out extreme beatings to a mostly ethnic supporting cast. There's one moment, in which Bradley horrifically breaks the arm of a black prison guard, that is a subtly damning commentary on racial injustice, with Bradley targeting his victim in the knowledge that his punishment will be less severe than had he injured a white guard. Not so easy to reconcile is the use of Asian faces as a shortcut for sinister intentions.

Brawl doesn't care that it's 2017. Its effects are practical, its pacing is leisurely, and its politics are questionable. What's unquestionable is that it's an instant exploitation classic, and further evidence that Zahler might be the most important figure in American genre cinema since John Carpenter.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is in UK/ROI cinemas October 20th.



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