S. Craig Zahler previous film, the deliciously brutal western Bone Tomahawk was a movie experience of two halves. The first was a intelligent retread of The Searchers, complete with great performances, whip smart dialogue and an interesting gritty style, the second was a handbrake turn into grindhouse horror. Much more like the exploitation Italian cannibal gutcrunchers of the 70’s than anything John Wayne would have lent his name to. The result wasn’t like anything out that year and Zahler’s next effort, Brawl In Cell Block 99, thankfully follows a similar, horrifying, template.
Vince Vaughn bolts on a straight face and puts nearly a decade of forgettable comedies behind him and plays Bradley (NOT Brad), a super controlled ex boxer/ex alcoholic, whom we meet the day he’s made redundant from his job and he finds out his wife has cheated on him. His reaction is to calmly take his ridiculously destructive temper out bare handed on his wife’s car, practically wrecking the thing without a single twich of pain. He then calmly goes into the house and rationally discusses with his wife how they can move on to make their lives better.
Fast forward and Bradley is a very successful courier for his drug baron friend, but a bad drug deal ends in a police shootout, a seven year stretch in prison and a disgruntled cartel. On his second day inside he finds (from a super creepy turn from eurohorror legend Udo Kier) that the cartel gas kidnapped his now pregnant wife and plan to do unspeakable things to the foetus unless Bradley gets himself transferred to a maximum security prison to perform a hit for them.
Up until now, Brawl In Cell Block 99 has been a deliberately paced, almost plodding tale of a potentially violent man trying to be decent in an uncaring society. Bradley’s circumstantial spiral into Hell is a slow, almost matter-of-fact jaunt instead of an uncontrollable rollercoaster ride, however, once Bradley gets that phone call the movie shifts into a nightmarish, gonzo, race against time where our main character must descend into the (hopefully) far fetched squalor and insanity of one of the worst prisons on earth. Overseen by Don Johnson’s sadistic head warden, kitted out in black – and apparently possessed by Lee Van Cleef from Escape From New York – Bradley has to endure electric torture belts, raw sewage, glass littered cells and numerous incredibly violent, horrifically breath taking fights in order to save his unborn child. Where Bone Tomahawk turned into Cannibal Holocaust, Brawl In Cell Block 99 riffs on various scummy exploitation prison movies, an art house homage to such questionable delights such as Ilsa: She Wolf Of The SS, Men Behind The Sun and most of all The Story Of Ricky. It’s awesome, coal black fun. Although watching a guy have his head stomped into the ground and having his face scraped off is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, obviously.
Vaughn is a revelation, shaved bald and tattooed with his footsteps amplified to make him sound like a tower of indestructible asskicker, his comic timing spitting out controlled sardonic one liners in all directions, it’s a performance you’ll hope will stick and that the actor won’t return to do a Fred Claus sequel any time soon. Everyone else (except for a twitchily vulnerable Jennifer Carpenter) goes out their way to make their characters as vile or nasty as possible. Is Bradley a good guy? He is compared to everyone around him.
This is a second bullseye in a row for S. Craig Zahler and the mind positively fizzes at what insane features he’s gonna unleash next.
I for one cannot wait.