Brawl in Cell Block 99
If the premise of Brawl in Cell Block 99 were pitched five years ago, one would assume it was a comedy. What’s not funny about the idea of Vince Vaughn, a pioneer of the funny slacker character, going bald and beating up cars? But this is the actor in his serious phase, preceded by Hacksaw Ridge and the second season of True Detective. In the latest from filmmaker and heavy metal singer S Craig Zahler, Brawl follows Bradley Thomas (Vaughn), a boxer-turned-drug dealer, who is (eventually) sent to prison for a job gone wrong.
The film is often excruciating, and not in a good way. More painful than flying fists and broken joints is the ridiculous, off-tangent dialogue that Zahler desperately wants the viewer to take seriously. The lines feel taken out of a sub-standard, Vaughn-led comedy – but the audience is ordered not to smile. One loses hope immediately when Bradley compares his life situation to choosing between whole milk and skimmed milk. On top of half-baked analogies, the director drops in various facts within the dialogue that feel copied-and-pasted from Wikipedia – and then pretends to be Aaron Sorkin.
Zahler does provide the odd brilliant moment, whether it’s a line or a scene, that’s tense and exhilarating. The final sequence, in particular, is filled with great action and dialogue. The viewer does feel genuine fear and sympathy for Bradley and, despite his Terminator vibes, engages with his personality. Despite Zahler throwing in lines undeserving of the character, Vaughn gives an electrifying performance and Jennifer Carpenter (playing his wife) delivers one of her most emotionally legitimate performances on screen. But given the overall amateurism, these are rare surprises belonging to a better movie. Discovering these moments is like finding chocolates in a dog-turd.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is as irritating as the excessive title suggests. Zahler is talented at avoiding cliché, but replaces it with poorly constructed scenes – made worse by Benji Bakshi’s dull cinematography. Vaughn is the rock of the film, stripping away his comedy roots and guiding the viewer through Bradley’s overly long tale of bloody fisticuffs. But perhaps he should shift away from Zahler, to a filmmaker more worthy of his talents.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is released nationwide on 20th October 2017.
Watch the trailer for Brawl in Cell Block 99 here: