Monday, October 16, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler. Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas, Mustafa Shakir, Thomas Guiry, Dion Mucciacito, Geno Segers, Willie C. Carpenter, Fred Melamed, Clark Johnson, Pooja Kumar, Victor Almanzar, Calvin Dutton, Michael Medeiros, Devon Windsor, Tobee Paik, Rob Morgan, Philip Ettinger. (Unrated, 132 mins)

With 2015's horror-western hybrid BONE TOMAHAWK, novelist/musician/jack-of-all-trades S. Craig Zahler immediately established himself as a filmmaker worth watching. The best description being "THE SEARCHERS if remade by Ruggero Deodato," BONE TOMAHAWK was an instant cult classic that was deserving of the label. Influenced by everything from Hollywood classics to Italian splatter films to underground metal (his musical projects include singing and playing drums in a band called Realmbuilder, and playing drums in the black metal band Charnel Valley), Zahler tackles the prison genre with BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, a hyperviolent and stunningly brutal revenge melodrama with the kind of wonderfully old-school title you'd expect to find on a mid '50s Allied Artists programmer. In a welcome departure from roles he's been coasting through for years and what the little-loved second season of TRUE DETECTIVE hinted at, Vince Vaughn is almost the spirit of Lee Marvin incarnate as Bradley--do not call him Brad--Thomas, a man with a dark past who's just trying to make an honest living and get by. Stoical and serious, and with a large cross tattooed on the back of his shaved head, Bradley and his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) are recovering alcoholics living in a small house in a crummy part of town. Bradley drives a wrecker for a local mechanic, but business is slow and he's let go. Arriving home, he finds Lauren about to take off for some afternoon delight with a man she's been seeing for the last three months. Bradley is not an abusive man but he reacts in the only way he can at that moment: by calmly and methodically tearing apart her car with his bare hands.

After resolving to work through their problems and preserve their marriage, Bradley decides to go back to an old job: "delivering packages" for local dealer Gil (Marc Blucas). 18 months go by, and Bradley and Lauren are in a spacious new home and she's six months pregnant. Against Bradley's gut instinct, Gil goes into business with powerful Mexican drug lord Eliazar (Dion Mucciacito), whose crew of irresponsible fuck-ups end up in a shootout with the cops, during which Bradley takes out Eliazar's guys to save the cops and keep the situation from escalating. That still does him no favors with the judge, and after he refuses to give up any names of his associates, Bradley is sentenced to seven years in a medium-security prison. Lauren promises to wait for him, assuring him that "that same mistake won't happen again." Determined to keep a low profile and hope he can be paroled after a few years for good behavior, Bradley's plans expectedly go to shit almost immediately: he's visited by the mysterious "Placid Man" (Udo Kier), posing as Lauren's doctor but actually a representative of Eliazar. The Placid Man's boss isn't happy about Bradley's actions during the shootout, which cost him two men and $3 million. Eliazar has taken Lauren hostage with an abortionist at the ready--one who claims to be able to "clip off" the legs of the fetus but let it live, maiming it in utero--if Bradley doesn't pay off his debt by getting himself transferred to Red Leaf, a maximum-security hellhole in upstate New York, where he's to take out a top Eliazar enemy who's being held in cell block 99. Bradley goes to extreme, limb-snapping measures to get himself transferred upstate, and once he's at Red Leaf, he's forced to work his way into cell block 99 while also dealing with conditions that make Gitmo look appealing, plus endlessly bullying guards and sadistic, cigarillo-sucking warden Tuggs (Don Johnson).

If you're familiar with BONE TOMAHAWK, the languid pacing and slow burn methodology of BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 won't come as a surprise. While BRAWL isn't quite on the level of BONE, Zahler again demonstrates a unique ability to build the world in which the film exists on his own terms and at his own pace. He brings a novelist's style and sensibility to the crafting of this story, letting it unfold like an long, engrossing book with vividly detailed characters. With his first two films, Zahler fuses pulpy grindhouse and serious arthouse more effectively than anyone since Quentin Tarantino in his prime. As with BONE TOMAHAWK, which ran over two hours and took 90 minutes to get to the crux of its horror plot, the 132-minute BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is in no particularly hurry to get to the title event. Instead, for about 105 minutes, we watch a fundamentally decent man who's been dealt one shitty card after another, his ability to keep his head above water growing more tenuous by the day, doing what's necessary to provide, to do what's "right." Vaughn is a revelation here, his every moment on screen seething with a palpable, slow-boiling rage. He knows he's in a bad business, but he's not a bad guy and still tries to do what's "right." He refuses to flip on his employers. When he's told he'll be out in four years and the judge hits him with seven, he shuts up and takes it like a man because his wife and his unborn child are all that matter. And when they're threatened, he's willing to put himself through every punishment imaginable to ensure their well-being. It's a remarkable performance, given a boost in some of the many shockingly violent, often sickening scenes of Bradley snapping limbs, stomping heads, and scraping faces across concrete walls and floors. Like BONE TOMAHAWK, BRAWL isn't all grim and humorless. There's no shortage of quotable tough-guy, B-movie dialogue--when asked how he's doing after losing his job, Bradley shrugs "South of OK, north of cancer;" when a fellow convict wishes their prison was like a state-of-the-art facility in Norway, Bradley snaps "You should aim higher with your wishes;" and during a jaw-off with a Eliazar flunky, patriotic Bradley gets in his face and says "The last time I checked, the colors of the flag weren't red, white and burrito." Released unrated and almost certainly worthy of an NC-17 for its extreme violence, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 isn't for everyone and may not even be as accessible as the decidedly offbeat BONE TOMAHAWK (however accessible a cannibal horror western can be), but it's an unusual and compelling character piece in the guise of a bonecrushing exploitation grinder.

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