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4

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Brawl in Cell Block 99
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Ouch"
4 stars

“Brawl in Cell Block 99” is a film that feels like what might have resulted if the screenplay for a violent prison potboiler written for American-International Pictures circa 1973 had somehow landed in the hands of the late Stanley Kubrick, who not only chose to direct it himself but elected to apply to it the same kind of formal precision and measured pacing that he employed on “Barry Lyndon.” Not surprisingly, the end result is pretty weird indeed as the disparate elements almost seem to be deliberately working against each other at times and even those who are able to reconcile those extremes may still be put off by its extended running time. And yet, while I am not entirely certain that I enjoyed it in any traditional sense, it does contain some undeniable points of interest and it is better than it probably has any right to be when all is said and done.

Vince Vaughn stars as Bradley Thomas, an ex-boxer and recovering alcoholic who is just trying to live his life quietly and who, as the story begins, is having a very bad day as he learns on the same afternoon that he has lost his garage job and that his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), with whom he has had a strained relationship since a miscarriage, has been having an affair. After venting his anger as only he can—by literally ripping Lauren’s car apart with his bare hands—he calmly decides to start putting things back together, even if it means taking a job as a courier for his drug-dealing friend, Gil (Marc Blucas) as a way of immediately making ends meet. When the story picks up eighteen months later, he is still working for Gil but everything else seems to be going well—he and Lauren have moved into a better house and are expecting a little girl to boot. However, when Gil sends him out on a run with a couple of flunkies working for a brutal Mexican drug kingpin, Bradley can already predict that things are going to go sideways as a result and in the ensuing chaos, his more noble instincts arise in a way that land him in prison for a brief stretch after he refuses to squeal on anyone else involved.

At first, it appears that his sentence in a minimum security prison will be relatively comfortable, under the circumstances—he gets a cell of his own and when a guard hassles him, he almost immediately apologizes and admits he was just trying to get Bradley to join the prison boxing team. Needless to say, it doesn’t last and hardly a day has passed when he is visited by a sleazy stranger (B-movie icon Udo Kier) who represents the kingpin and who informs Bradley that he is on the hook for the millions lost in the busted deal and that the only way he can pay it off is to murder another inmate in the next couple of days. The hitch is that this particular convict is residing in the maximum security Red Leaf Prison in the dark corners of Cell Block 99, the area reserved for the worst of the worst. To help Bradley make his choice, the kingpin has kidnapped Lauren and is threatening to do something to their child that is bleak and nasty even by grind house movie standards.

It is at this point, roughly an hour and change into the proceedings, makes its definitive pivot from the relatively stately to the undeniably savage that begin with the brutal beatdown he administers to the aforementioned guard as a way of spurring his transfer to Red Leaf. There, he is greeted by the much less friendly warden (Don Johnson), who cooly informs him that prison life there is based on a system of rewards and punishments, with the latter far outnumbering the former, before giving him a guided tour of the place, which is essentially a collection of increasingly dire dungeons whose current condition would make the infamous toilet from “Trainspotting” throw up out of sheer revulsion. Once again, Bradley is forced to unleash hell on people in order to land himself on Cell Block 99 and when he does, it turns out that things are worse than even could have imagined—the very kind of things that could finally allow the rage that has been coiling up inside him to burst out with outrageously gruesome results.

And make no mistake about it, when I say “gruesome,” I mean it. If this film had played at the Woods or the McVickers, to name two of the Chicago theaters that used to specialize in grind house fare during their dying days in the Seventies and Eighties, even the denizens that used to chortle during the likes of “I Spit on Your Grave” and “Last House on the Left” would have been unsettled by some of the imagery on display here. At one point, there is an eye gouging that is presented in the bloodiest manner imaginable. In most films, that would be the grisly highlight (or lowlight, depending on your POV) but here, that bit of nastiness is just a baseline amid the bone shatterings, skull smashings and face pulpings on display here. Oh, and if you think that you can somehow outsmart the film by simply shutting your eyes during the gross stuff, that doesn’t work either because the sound effects that have been deployed to heighten the power of the visuals are ghastly enough on their own.

Under normal circumstances, when I finish watching a movie, I have a reasonably good idea of whether I liked it or not but in the case of “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” I have to admit that I was not so sure. For one thing, while I do not have a problem with over-the-top violence in a film as long as there is some kind of point or purpose to it but I just didn’t think that this one had anything like that—it is basically there to leave viewers feeling as pummeled as Bradley by the end and while it does accomplish that, so what? I also didn’t think that writer-director S. Craig Zahler, whose previous film was the brutal but undeniably effective western “Bone Tomahawk,” quite pulled of the blend of arthouse and grindhouse sensibilities in a completely satisfying manner along the lines of what he accomplished in his earlier effort—those who are there for the blood in the second half are likely to be put off by the methodical pacing and the minimalist storytelling style featured in the first. Also, the film as a whole is just too long—even if the idea of taking a story that might have once led to a lean and mean 80-minute movie and stretching it out by another 50 minutes to give the familiar tropes a rare chance to breathe appeals to you, the simple fact is that it still could have easily lost 15-20 minutes without sacrificing anything that couldn’t have been discarded in the first place.

And yet, at the same time, there are a number of elements in the film that are undeniably effective and worthy of note. For one thing, while most of the recent elaborate homages to the golden days of trash cinema, most notably the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez doubleheader “Grindhouse,” this is one that follows in the footsteps of its antecedents without regarding them with a wink and a nod to show audiences that everyone is in on the joke. While there are grimly humorous moments here and there, this is a film that takes its dark and brutal premise and treats it seriously throughout. It also subtlety reminds one of those earlier films by its unwavering willingness to go to the bleakest areas imaginable. There are moments here that go so far that they knock out the underpinnings of even the most studiously ironic of moviegoers. Take the scene where Bradley hears the way in which the bad guys threaten his unborn child if he does not comply with them—although outrageously over-the-top, it is played so straight that it becomes terrifying instead of a joke and leaves viewers fearfully wondering just how far this particular film is willing to go.

The film is also graced with a couple of undeniably effective performances at its center. Faithful readers may have noticed over the years that Vince Vaughn is not necessarily one of my favorite actors—though undeniably talented, he has too often gone the lazy way out by applying the motormouth persona that he demonstrated in “Swingers” to virtually every one of his subsequent roles by riffing and scatting to his heart’s content while his co-stars stand around in the hopes that they might eventually get a word in edgewise. This time around, he speaks relatively little and when he does speak, it is in terse, measured comments that are laconic and sometimes very funny. Instead, he carries the film largely on the back of his commanding physical presence and that move proves to be a smart one—he is scarily convincing as a guy who knows that he could literally beat someone to death if he wanted but who elects not to deploy that power until it becomes impossible to avoid it. In a smaller role as the warden of Red Leaf, Don Johnson pretty much steals every scene in the latest of a string of standout supporting turns that have included parts in “Machete,” “Cold in July” and “Django Unchained.” Instead of going for the eye-rolling bluster that a part like this might call for, he goes for something quieter and more subtle—watch the unexpected ways in which his character reacts to the events of the final scenes—and makes the character far more memorable than he might have been otherwise.

There will no doubt be plenty of reviews that dismiss “Brawl in Cell Block 99” as little more than gory and insanely violent trash. In fact, it is gory and insanely violent trash but it has been done with no small amount of seriousness, style and intelligence that allows it to at least partially transcend its sleazo roots. This is not the kind of movie that I can easily give a blanket recommendation to because your enjoyment, for lack of a better word, will no doubt be dependent on your personal tolerance for any number of things ranging from elongated running times to head crushings. One thing is for sure, though. Whether you decide to see the film because of its brains (figuratively) or because of its brains (literally), don’t make any plans for a meal either before or after the screening.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=31643&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/13/17 13:55:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2017 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2017 Venice Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  S. Craig Zahler

Written by
  S. Craig Zahler

Cast
  Vince Vaughn
  Jennifer Carpenter
  Don Johnson
  Tom Guiry
  Marc Blucas
  Udo Kier



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