One of the biggest and best surprises for the cult movie in 2016 world was Bone Tomahawk, the directing debut of erstwhile novelist S. Craig Zahler. As a filmmaker, he offered fans of the usual a style that seemed fully formed at the outset: a mixture of classical storytelling values in characterization and dialogue combined with a modern willingness to deploy the kind of plot twists and uncompromising brutality that mainstream cinema doesn’t allow. The cultists ate it up but no doubt wondered “What does this guy do for a second act?”
The answer arrived this year when Brawl In Cell Block 99 hit the festival circuit and trickled down to home video. As the title suggests, it’s partially a throwback to old-fashioned tough guy cinema… but in what is becoming the Zahler style, it has a post-modernist willingness to hit new heights of brutality as it pursues surprising angles in how it handles its retro agenda.
The plot of Brawl In Cell Block 99 is simple enough: Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is a working class guy who turns to drug running for an old friend to provide a better life for his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter). When a drug deal masterminded by new partner Eleazer (Dion Mucciacito) goes sideways, Bradley takes the rap and keeps his mouth shut, believing that will protect his now-pregnant wife.
Unfortunately, Eleazer is feeling vengeful because Bradley got violent with his unreliable goons and uses his influence to both threaten Lauren and make Bradley’s life difficult and violent. What he doesn’t know is that Bradley has two formidable weapons in his arsenal. The first is an impressive and vicious set of hand-to-hand fighting skills. The other is an intense sense of righteousness that ensures Bradley is willing to suffer any threat or brutality to set things right for his family’s future.
The above plot synopsis is accurate but fails to convey the feel of Brawl In Cell Block 99, which makes these stock elements feel bracingly fresh. The magic lies in how Zahler handles them.
Rather than follow standard action movie pacing, Zahler’s script gives the story’s setup room to breathe so the audience can get know Bradley and build an investment in him. He does so in a spartan style, bringing savvy, pulp-with-a-brain stylization to his dialogue and delivering the occasional oddball flourish to draw the viewer in (example: we are introduced to Bradley’s fighting skills when he responds to some bad news by decimating a car’s exterior with his fists). There is a similar sparseness in his direction, deploying stark lighting and simple but well-chosen camera angles to tell the story.
In terms of acting, Zahler wisely gets his cast to handle the increasingly eccentric turns of plot in an unaffected, naturalistic style that gives the film its own unique sense of alternative reality. Vaughn gets to apply his charm and flair for dialogue to a much more stoic and internally-driven character than usual: the gambit pays off in a performance that is by turns charismatic and frightening. He’s the rare tough guy who can back up his taunts with swift, brutal carnage. Carpenter lends solid support but the flashy supporting roles go to Don Johnson as a calmly brutal prison warden and Udo Kier, who gets his best cameo in years as an icily efficient henchman.
The film has plenty of violence, particularly the final half-hour, but Zahler’s direction of violence presents shocking elements in a disarmingly matter-of-fact style. The film’s beatdowns are handled much like the violence in a Takeshi Kitano film: tension builds until there is a sudden, shocking outburst. There’s no balletic grace here, just the blunt force extremity of arms being snapped and heads getting crushed. Old-school action fans will be pleased to see how Zahler shows the fights in long takes and medium shots that show off the action choreography and just how involved the cast actually is in it.
In short, Brawl In Cell Block 99 is not the usual low-budget action film. It shows Zahler further developing his distinctive, unhurried and quirkily stylish approach to pulp movie conceits while delivering the excitement that will allow him to build the cult following established by Bone Tomahawk.