BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Marc Blucas, Udo Kier, Mustafa Shakir, Dion Mucciacito, Geno Segers, Thomas Guiry
Running Time: 2:12
Release Date: 10/6/17 (limited); 10/13/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 12, 2017
There's an admirable sense of formalistic precision to Brawl in Cell Block 99, which seems unlikely, given that its premise is the stuff of an exploitation movie. In it, a violent but decent-enough man is "forced" to work as a criminal, winds up in prison, and has to move through the penitentiary system in order to save his pregnant wife. None of the story is particularly realistic, since the primary point of such movies is to give the audience some base thrills—mostly sex and violence, although the idea is that anything goes.
With this movie, it seems that writer/director S. Craig Zahler has set out to prove that such material can possess a degree of realism, even if it's only in terms of how the story is told. The what of this story still is fairly ludicrous, but Zahler tells it with a methodical pace, plenty of still and relatively lengthy shots, and a focus on the central character that makes him seem deeper than he actually is. It's still exploitation, but on the surface, the movie doesn't look like it.
This puts one in a state of bewilderment. You half expect that the movie, considering its title and subject matter, will take the low road. Once it becomes clear that Zahler has higher standards in terms of his style, though, you also half expect that the movie will provide more than just the base thrills of its bone-snapping, face-pummeling, and face-scraping violence. It doesn't quite take the low road, since there is something realistic in the depiction of the main character's predicament (up to a point in the plot, of course), but the whole of the plot is arranged for its delayed payoffs—namely all of the fight sequences, which are bloody and brutal and body-punishing.
As for the realistic part, Bradley—never "Brad"—Thomas (Vince Vaughn) has been laid off. He returns home to discover that his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been having an affair. After destroying the car with his bare hands, Thomas lays it out straight with his wife: He has been absent from her life, has ignored her after a miscarriage, and has decided that he'll start delivering drugs for his old business partner. If she's willing, he wants them to begin anew—forget the past and try to start a family again.
Over a year later, the couple has a new, bigger house in the suburbs, and there's a baby on the way. Bradley's boss Gil (Marc Blucas) has a prospective, profitable deal in the works with Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito), and he only trusts Bradley with the first part of the transaction.
Needless to say, the deal goes poorly, but like the movie's scenes up until this point, it's noteworthy for how much time Zahler spends on the little details. That earlier conversation between Bradley and Lauren, for example, is a scene that a cheap, uncaring exploitation movie would simply skip, if only because it shows that, for all his many faults, Bradley is capable of seeing his own flaws, admitting to them, and rising above them. The drug-deal-gone-bad sequence plays out with almost too much attention to such details—a long walk down a pier, a boat ride to retrieve the sunken product, and a couple more long walks back and forth on the dock. The point is that we can see Bradley taking control of the situation, losing that control, and making a choice that either a senseless man or one with some values would make. By that point, we know he's not the former.
It takes about 45 minutes before the idea of prison is even introduced in this prison story, and it's shortly after that move—in relative terms, of course—that the movie transforms into the kind of story we might expect. Bradley, a man who basically asked to go to prison because he knew he did something illegal, finds himself helpless when Eleazar's attorney (played by Udo Kier) arrives with news that Lauren has been abducted. In return for her safe release, Eleazar demands a favor: Bradley has to kill an inmate in a secretive cell block of a maximum-security prison. Since he's not in that penitentiary, he has to find a way to get there.
There's not much in terms of actual plot here, except that Bradley fights guards and inmates alike to reach his destination. Those fights are impressive, because Zahler shoots them from enough distance that we can see how Bradley sizes up his opponents, how combat progresses, and, most definitely, how they end. Cast completely against type, Vaughn, sporting a shaved head and a cross tattoo on the back of it, is both intimidating and thoughtful here. He's a brute with a brain and a value system (which, ironically, put him in prison). Those qualities might save Bradley's wife, if he can survive the regular torture doled out by Warden Tuggs (a sadistic, cigar-chomping Don Johnson).
There's not much else, which is to be expected from the material but also frustrating, since Zahler seems to be promising more with his approach. Brawl in Cell Block 99 seems to exploit the concept of an exploitation movie, but beyond showing that such a stunt can be done, there's really no worthwhile rationale for the movie's dichotomy of content and form.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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