Running Time: 132 minutes
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Cast:Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas and Tom Guiry
A former boxer loses his job as an auto mechanic, and his troubled marriage is about to expire. At this crossroads in his life, he feels that he has no better option than to work as a drug courier. He soon finds himself in a gunfight between police officers and his own ruthless allies. When the smoke clears, Bradley is badly hurt and thrown in prison, where his enemies force him to commit acts of violence that turn the place into a savage battleground.
Steven Craig Zahler’s journey into film making may have began behind a camera as a cinematographer but his true passion was in writing. As a novelist the genre of his works ranged from science fiction to crime but he gained acclaim with his 2010 debut novel, A Congregation of Jackals.
A revenge driven Western laced with raw horror. Books such as these garnered the interest of people within the film industry such as Kurt Russell and Ridley Scott. After several more novels and black listed screenplays, Zahler’s script for Asylum Blackout was made into a feature film in 2011. Although the film itself received negative to mixed reviews it didn’t hinder Zahler from a career as a film maker.
His 2015 debut film, Bone Tomahawk was one of the surprise critical hits of the year. As with his debut novel, the film was a dark horror western that was relentless in it’s grisly execution. Despite only having a limited release in cinemas, word of mouth has helped it gain a cult following on home release. With this impressive debut, all eyes are on his follow up, Brawl in Cell Block 99.
The film follows the fortunes of Bradley Thomas. A former boxer who has just lost his job as a mechanic and has been cheated on by his wife. “South of okay but north of cancer” as he puts it. At this crossroads in his life he decides to give his relationship another chance by starting a family so to fund this change in lifestyle he gets a job as a drug courier.
However eighteen months into his new job a failed drug deal lands him with a seven year prison sentence with a baby on the way. Whilst in prison his former associates give him an ultimatum. Assassinate a fellow inmate or risk the life of his wife and unborn child.
With his debut film Bone Tomahawk, Zahler delivered a grounded, bleak and ultra violent piece of cinema that stood out as a unique film in both the horror and western genre. Unfortunately Brawl in Cell Block 99 does not live up to his promising debut. The main problem with the film is that it is too long. With a run time of 2 hours and 12 minutes it can be a testing watch, especially in the first act (almost all of which seems unnecessary in the grand scheme of things). The action doesn’t really kick into gear until Bradley reaches prison and it is here where the film really comes to life in a very brutal and over the top manner.
Another problem is that the tone of the film is scatter shot. Zahler tries to play it straight in one scene and then erratic and over the top in the next with no real sense of continuity. After a fairly straight forward opening half of character development (bar one particular scene of hand held piece of vehicular destruction) the second half of the film it becomes a complete grindhouse, gore laced fantasy as eyes are gouged out and jaws are smashed. It is clear that this is where Zahler is having the most fun as he immerses the film with increasingly ludicrous levels of violence. It’s an absolute riot for fans of the genre.
As well as directing the film Zahler is also on writing duties. His script embraces the tropes and cliches of genre with a well drawn leading character. He tries to approach it with a grounded perspective as with his debut film to but this is to the film’s detriment as it’s true strength lies in when he allows it to go off the rails. With Tarantino-esque dialogue he tries to add elements of class commentary and the American dream but these ideas never take off as they are sacrificed in favour of pure shock and jet black humour.
In an interesting piece of casting, Vince Vaughan plays the lead role of Bradley Thomas. A laconic blue collar worker just trying to get by and provide for his family despite having past problems with addiction and repressed rage. In this against type role, Vaughan plays it straight with an underlying sense of mischief but he is never truly believable in the role (despite his best efforts). Jennifer Carpenter plays Lauren, his wife and mother to his unborn child.
As a recovering alcoholic her screen time is limited leaving her to have very little impact on the film. Don Johnson is in fine scenery chewing mode as Warden Tuggs of the notorious Red Leaf prison. It is clear that he is having a ball as the thuggish head of the institution with no care for the Geneva convention within the four walls of his prison. Legendary genre actor Udo Kier also makes a memorable appearance as the placid man who gives Bradley his precarious ultimatum.
The desaturated colour scheme adopted by cinematographer, Benji Bakshi works to great effect in the film as it contributes to the bold and gritty feel of the film. It is particularly prevalent in the scenes set in Red Leaf prison as the deplorable condition of the cells is beautifully realised in the grimmest way possible. The special effects team also have to be commended on their great work as their psychical effects work to great effect making the audience wince and cheer in equal measure.
Despite missteps in terms of pace and tone, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a brutal but fun watch once it gets going. Unfortunately it may be too little too late for some but for those who are patient enough they are rewarded with an unashamed piece of exploitation cinema that pulls no punches. Shortcomings aside Zahler still appears to be an interesting genre film maker to watch out for in years to come.