Venice Film Festival: Brawl in Cell Block 99

Brawl in Cell Block 99
Brawl in Cell Block 99
Out of Competition
Directed by S. Craig Zahler
Starring Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Marc Blucas, Udo Kier and Fred Melamed
In UK cinemas October 20th, 2017

by Richard Hamer

At first, I thought that Brawl in Cell Block 99 didn’t have enough brawls. Or if there were enough brawls – and don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of brawls – it’s that the average length, and number of opponents per brawl doesn’t ramp up over time in a sufficiently satisfactory manner. But in fact, the ratio of brawls to non-brawls isn’t a problem; it’s all part of a masterfully crafted trick. It’s the same trick that director S. Craig Zahler pulled in his previous outing Bone Tomahawk, and it’s the reason he’s one of the most exciting horror directors in Hollywood today: he takes his time.

While Brawl in Cell Block 99 is undoubtedly a ridiculous explosion of gratuitous violence, it’s also a movie that understands the importance of investing in a character emotionally, before you plunge them into peril – no matter how crazy or cartoonish that peril may be. And so, the events that lead Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) into a life of crime in order to support his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) and their unborn child, is given the time it deserves. It’s not until nearly a full hour in that we see Bradley in any kind of cell block.

A lesser filmmaker could have made this buildup dreadfully boring. But Zahler isn’t a lesser filmmaker, and the steady ramping up of the tension leaves you almost nervous with anticipation for what you know is coming. With Bone Tomahawk, Zahler made audiences wait for the showdown with Cannibal Native Americans; with Brawl in Cell Block 99, audiences really have to earn their brawl.

This cinematic long game benefits enormously from Vince Vaughn’s arresting central performance. His Bradley Thomas strikes a fine balance between the good man forced into unspeakable acts to protect his loved ones, and the cold, blank-faced killer. Credit must also be given to Vaughn’s physical transformation: his sheer physical size and presence on-screen is immense, and not for one moment do you question his ability to stand-up to those he fights, or to take the many, many punches he receives.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a highly successful piece of grindhouse-style cinema: violent and funny in many of the ways you might expect, but also accomplished in other ways you may not. It takes its time, grounding itself enough in reality that when the fighting starts, you actually care about who wins. While the premise is pure B-movie madness, the execution – like with Bone Tomahawk before it – is A+.


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