S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl In Cell Block 99- Thoughts from Nate Hill


Bring a strong stomach with you to S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl In Cell Block 99, a casually vicious ode to 1970’s exploitation that pulls no punches, kicks, backhands or wet-crunchy head stomps that will make your balls retreat up in those nether regions. Zahler is also responsible for 2015’s incredible horror western Bone Tomahawk, which set him on the messianic path to bring hard hitting genre cinema back to the forefront of our awareness. He’s proved here that he plans to make that his long-game plan, with an utterly unapologetic, icily paced prison flick that ramps up into levels of violence that shake and stun. Vince Vaughn, that neurotic, rotund teddy bear, sheds his image as well as his shirt to ruthlessly pummel anyone that gets in the way of his quest to save pregnant wife Jennifer Carpenter after a drug deal gone bad, an area of employment he only entered to provide for those he loved. Stuck inside a minimum security prison, he’s visited by a deliberately sinister old gentleman (Udo Kier, whose very presence solidifies the film’s perpetual eccentricity) who uses the man’s captive wife as leverage, and orders him to get himself transferred to a hellhole of a facility run by a nasty warden (Don Johnson, sadism incarnate). There’s he’s forced to fight tooth, nail and skull to stay alive, and fight he does. It all sounds rather lively, doesn’t it? Not so much. Zahler is fascinated by subverting stereotypes and upturning genre expectations, going ballistic here with the film’s patient, slow-cooker pacing. There’s a Tarantino vibe to the wait vs. payoff in terms of violence especially in the last side of the third act, but it’s much more perverse and played up, and if the carnage in Tomahawk made you queasy, you’ll go full chunder with what Vaughn inflicts on his fellow jailbirds here, and shudder at Kier’s casually evil approach to his job. Zahler has given the ol’ German another chomp at the bit in terms of roles, as he hasn’t done much in years, but he’ll turn up again next year in the director’s ‘Dragged Across Concrete’, which headlines Vaughn and Mal Gibson, so there’s that to wet your panties over. Like Tarantino, Rob Zombie and others, Zahler like ms to handpick actors from bygone eras and showcase them in his roster, a quality I love in a filmmaker and one that shows they’ve done their research. Vaughn is an absolute demon here, a man with a specific, patriotic code of ethics and honour, but also not one to shy away from getting his hands dirty. Don Johnson is riding the wave of a magnificent comeback, his characters here has a southern prince exterior, with evil positively oozing from beneath. This was not the film I expected, not should it have been. It’s unique, purposefully dodging expectations, and hits home with the crippling impact of Vaughn terrifying fists. An unconventional winner.

-Nate Hill 

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