This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Genre cinema’s latest indie sweetheart, S. Craig Zahler, returns to the fray with yet another high-profile actor as his muse. BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 features a scene wherein Vince Vaughn’s character, Bradley Thomas, a recently imprisoned upstate New York drug runner, stomps a man’s head into pavement and drags him until his face scrapes clean off. This is not a film for the faint of heart or stomach: this filmmaker’s penchant for the nasty and ultra-violent is so blunt, so without fanfare, that it oozes confidence. The movie doesn’t need to applaud itself, it already knows the audience is going buckwild.
Vince Vaughn in HEAD-ING SMASHERS
Vince Vaughn plays a hulking Frankenstein’s monster of a villain, punches landing on him as flat thuds, his hugs enough to snap spines. His journey, one that I dare not spoil but will reveal has a certain STREETS OF RAGE side-scroller je ne sais quoi, is one rooted in emotional truth. Though it wholeheartedly has him saving a damsel in distress, the tackiness of it somehow feels endearing. Vince Vaughn just sells it. It’s a performance of a lifetime: Vaughn establishes a signature cult character the very moment his head tattoo pops on screen.
His cooly confident, unsettlingly patriarchal, stoically assured demeanor is tested in every scene, pushed constantly to the point of breaking—so much of BRAWL’s entertainment lies in seeing Bradley slightly lose his cool, then recollect 140% of it later. He observes, he soaks in, and then he adapts. The adapting often takes the form of exhilarating wide-shot melees, with performers taking on the physicality of DRUNKEN MASTER and DEF JAM: FIGHT FOR NEW YORK. Having our eyes glued to Bradley map out his surroundings and cue to each yard’s social politics is a joyous ode to process. It’s when THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN meets a Liveleak Neo-Nazi beheading video. And what a patient video it is.
Body Count: 14, Car Count: 1
At 132 minutes, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, much like Zahler’s previous, BONE TOMAHAWK, is a languid meditation on systematic violence and the isolating torture of social imprisonment, the latter taken to its literal endpoint here. Bradley has a violent outburst, but what follows is about 20 minutes of waiting in dilapidated cells and being humiliated by those more elevated in the judicial hierarchy, legal or otherwise. The film uses these moments not to waste our time, but to rev its engines. Not that the non-violent portions are a snooze—far from it. Zahler’s dialogue and novelistic world-building is gold, with one out of every six lines being instantly quotable and every character’s role in their world so clearly recognizable. Sickly sardonic, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is surprisingly hysterical.
This is a controlled explosion of 20th century grime cinema: from Shaw Brothers to SUPERFLY, from Bruce Lee to George A. Romero, and even some bits of CANNIBAL FEROX in there for good measure. And that’s just the references from the ‘70s. How refreshing it is to watch a post-modern genre homage that’s done its homework and picks influences outside of the usual suspects of the same two dozen movies ripped-off by so-called “cult movie obsessives.” While your STRANGER THINGS and co. may go for cutesy, iconic bits of nostalgia, Zahler opts for the ugly bits of the cinematic canon and American history itself: while quite subtle, his cynical critique of home-grown patriots, and really just the standard social code, is scathing.
I hope you like blues, grays, and greens
The lengths at which this film strives for ugliness cannot be overstated. Whereas BONE TOMAHAWK’s digital camerawork made for a distracting, “play pretend” western aesthetic, the same approach in BRAWL’s grungy cell blocks and industrial exteriors accentuate the film’s nihilistic vision and create a striking tangibility to all the proceedings. When an arm gets cracked in half, bone protruding from the forearm . . . you feel that. But wow—can this be an eyesore. However, this time, it feels intentional. 80% of the lighting is fluorescent, the white balance is all over the place, and sunlight blows out the shot nearly every time it comes into play. It’s tough to say whether Zahler is trolling us or if he’s so caught up in his character work that he will sacrifice nearly every shot to nail performance. Lucky for him, and given the setting, it pays off.
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This is Tarantino meets Pedro Costa, the tongue-in-cheek dialogue and wonderfully self-acknowledged attribution of grindhouse tropes mixed with the horrific physicality of humans forced to their breaking points, switched from biological organisms to gut-churning mechanisms, all seen through mucky DV-captured corridors. BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is pulverizing—a BDSM session of a film that tests your patience, your stomach, and your bloodlust, but never pushes you to the extremities of pure transgressive cinema. Zahler’s having fun with it . . . he knows deep down there’s a sick part of you that will, too.