Craig Zahler’s “Brawl In The Cell Block 99” made quite a stunning premiere in Toronto in the Midnight Madness Section. Was it the alcohol that made it watchable?
Despite that, there is a high probability that most of these positive reactions were an effect of rising percentage of alcohol in the audience’s common blood system. Albeit it could be fun then, watching “Brawl In The Cell Block 99” completely sober is a struggle.
Thomas Bradley (Vince Vaughn), a former boxer, gets caught in some dirty business by the police. He is quickly sentenced to several years in prison. Things get complicated once his wife is captured by a rivaling mafia – its boss asks for a favor that Thomas cannot refuse.
After the famous “awakening” of Matthew McConaughey, which even earned him a term “McConassaince”, viewers began to believe that more uninspiring actors can turn their careers upside down. Vince Vaughn made such attempt following the exact same steps as McConaughey did – by collaborating with Nic Pizzolatto on “True Detective”. The second season of the groundbreaking cop drama has led to a Great Schism among the fans of the HBO show, whilst critics considered it a total disaster. Though Vaughn was not the reason for season’s terrible reviews, he struggled too much with the ridiculous writing and the blue balls in his throat.
Hence, seeing him in “Brawl In The Cell Block 99” comes as a kind of shocker. Vaughn is the kind of silent muscle, whose presence is a contradiction of Tom Hardy’s Charles Bronson from Nicholas Winding Refn’s film. Vaughn is not an introvert growler, but more of a sleeping volcano, which erupts every now and then. His emotions are not hidden under a stiff mask – on the contrary, Bradley is constantly fighting them off on the outside. The actor handles the role in a confident way, depicting a man who is fully aware to be walking a path of certain self-destruction.
Unfortunately, Vince Vaughn might be the only reasonably entertaining part of “Brawl In The Cell Block 99”. Most of the film is either obnoxiously boring or poorly executed. Zahler is neither an engaging storyteller nor a skilled screenwriter. Hence, the story is dull, with dialogues that make even Don Johnson sound ridiculous (my favorite line is “your minimum freedom became so small that it will be microscopic“).
Even the beginning indicates the future problems – things start off by sculpturing the emotional background of the protagonist in granite. There is no room for sensitivity, no space for directorial creativity – just a documentation of things that led Bradley to his cell. The film could easily loosen such awfully dry beginning and kick things off right in the jail.
“Brawl In The Cell Block 99” also begs for far more action, which could be consistently and sensitively weaved in. It’s even hard to call Zahler’s film a kind of slow cinema experience, because of how often it breaks its own frame. Whilst the beginning is stiff, the middle part is mostly over-talked, with Vaughn’s acting limited to Gosling-like one-face mimics.
Only in the end things are truly heating up, yet it again feels detached from the rest, as if the whole film never found its own rhythm. The last half an hour gets both drastically and graphically brutal, with Vaughn’s character crushing people’s heads and gouging eyes out. Some of these scenes are extremely violent and realistic, but wait until you see the kitschy ending, that could easily fit in some B-movie classic like “An Incredible Melting Man”. You cannot “unsee” it.
Undoubtedly, Vince Vaughn is doing his best to remedy a poor image the actor has nurture. Though “Brawl In The Cell Block 99” is another miss rather than hit, he is not even partially responsible for the state of things. And as for the director S. Craig Zahler, let’s just say that it might take a while until he forms his “art” into real art. Realism and slow cinema are rising trends, but to surf a wave, you firstly need to know how to.
Brawl In The Cell Block 99 (2017)
Dir. S. Craig Zahler
Cast: Vince Vaughn and that would be it…
Hate Grade: 6.5/10