Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Reserved Seating: BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo that are minimum security prison guys at most.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: This week we’re reviewing S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, titled Brawl in Cell Block 99. The film stars Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, a drug runner whose boss (Marc Blucas) recruits him for a tryout run with men employed by a higher-level kingpin. Things go awry and Bradley ends up in a medium security prison known as The Fridge. While incarcerated, Bradley has warned his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), to stay away so that she can raise their unborn baby unharmed. Shortly thereafter, Bradley is notified that the kingpin has kidnapped his wife and will do terrible things unless Bradley forces his way into a different (this time) maximum security prison, specifically its notorious cell block 99, to kill a man the kingpin wants dead.
I was looking forward to Brawl in Cell Block 99, being a big fan of Bone Tomahawk, which was an exciting debut that made me eager to see the writer-director-composer expand his voice in a new feature. To be frank, I was expecting better than Brawl in Cell Block 99, which has some qualities I enjoyed but feels like a step backwards from Zahler’s debut. I was onboard during the first half of the movie, but after Vaughn’s character reaches the maximum-security prison, I was gradually more disappointed as I realized the movie is a slow march towards the inevitable without much in the way of story development, visual creativity, characterization or surprise. There’s a standout gore sequence in Bone Tomahawk that was unsettling. It feels like Zahler’s take away from that film was to include more of these moments in Brawl (and they are absolutely brutal) and find a movie to hang them on instead of the other way around. To my surprise, what I appreciated during the entirety of the film was Vince Vaughn’s performance. My reaction to Brawl in Cell Block 99 was the opposite of what I thought it was going to be as a fan of the filmmaker but not always his lead actor. I wanted to like Brawl in Cell Block 99 more than I did.
Rob: I think we’re pretty close on this one. I, too, loved Bone Tomahawk and was eager to see what Zahler did next. I avoided seeing any trailers for Brawl in Cell Block 99 because I wanted to be just as immersed and on my toes as I was during that first film. I loved the opening segment and the first world building bits in The Fridge. I liked the little ticks in Vaughn’s character that made him feel dangerous without being hateful, kind of militant without being fanatical. It’s always great to feel like you’re in safe hands when you’re following a character or storyline with this kind of confidence. That’s actually why a film like Baby Driver falls a little short for me; I don’t feel Edgar Wright’s usual control or confidence in the lead character. This one has it, at least at first. But for as intricate and careful as Brawl is in its first hour, I definitely felt that sinking disappointment once I realized that the last twenty minutes were going to shake out exactly the way they would in any standard revenge thriller. Given Zahler’s potential, that was such a bummer.

In the end, I’m of two minds: I think the film is well-paced and that it has some moody production design. I agree that Vince Vaughn’s performance is really interesting and sure to get some attention. I think the violence is shocking and upsetting. But whereas Bone Tomahawk boasts a stable of really interesting characters with whom we get intensely emotionally engaged, it felt like Zahler, in this case, spent a lot of time developing Vaughn’s lead character and filled the rest of the film with lazy archetypes. I expected Zahler to do better. Maybe it needed Richard Jenkins. Actually, every film needs Richard Jenkins.
Adam: This is a hard movie for me to decide on in terms of recommending or not recommending. I’m leaning towards recommending it because so many other people seem to be enjoying it. I think I’m less of a fan than you are. But first, I want to talk about Vince Vaughn some more, because he’s doing something different here than I’ve seen from him and it’s one of my favorite performances, not just from his career but of this year in movies so far. There was a point in the second half of Brawl in Cell Block 99 where I thought back to his character in Swingers and how he transformed over the years from a sex symbol and goofball into the hulking brute shown in this movie. He was always an interesting dramatic actor to me (e.g. he’s terrific in Return to Paradise) because he’s willing to be ugly while also having a veneer of charm; like he’s trying to hold his image together (as a character) even if the cracks are showing and something darker is being revealed. I appreciated his work in Brawl so much because it reminds me of his career highlights and not the sneering Clint Eastwood tough guy impression he did in Hacksaw Ridge, which was a little hard to watch. It’s goofy in a bad way.

Rob: I really enjoyed this performance. I was afraid of Bradley, but I also trusted that the people he was going to hurt were going to deserve it. There was a sense that every slight variation in his body language was a colossal trigger that was going to come with consequences. That mostly tracked, but there wasn’t a ton for him to do with it after a while. Udo Kier and Don Johnson have a nice moment or two, but they’re mostly just there to sneer from across the room. The various guards and prisoners are beaten-up in identical styles. It becomes rote. Take the opening scene (in which Bradley destroys his wife’s car with his fists): that was one of the most engaging character moments in the film! It was so awkward and sad (it recalls a similar beat in The Big Sick, oddly enough), but there’s almost nothing else that meets that level. At a certain point the film becomes Forrest Gump is an Angry Murderer and sort of just dies. Blah.

Can I ask a question that makes me feel dumb (and is a pretty hefty spoiler)? SPOILER Was the Chris character meant to be a trick to get Bradley into that specific cell block so the Drug Kingpin Guy could get personal revenge?

Adam: Yeah, that’s how I read it. I wouldn’t feel dumb about it. It’s a question I had while I watched the movie too. END SPOILER
I was annoyed that Jennifer Carpenter was “the woman to protect” archetype. When I noticed that happening, the movie sort of unraveled a bit for me into this macho bullshit fantasy where the hero is flawed and noble and his woman has little agency other than to hurt her man because women can hurt even tough men. Then the rest of the film is posturing and violent fights. Also, this is a movie that had me start to question Zahler’s technical craft. He likes things bloated (the runtime of this movie is ridiculously overlong), he is not above speechifying as a writer (the skim milk speech near the beginning is...I wanted that scene to be over FAST), he is open to stunt casting (Kier and Johnson are “look who I got” casting choices) and he has zero visual style other than point and shoot or pull back to show the actors fighting. I feel dumb pointing these things out because Zahler directed, wrote and scored his movie here, but it made me sort of feel like even all that isn’t enough. This is a very specific tough guy “look what’s cool” POV and I was a little turned off by it. I’m still a fan of Zahler, but I have doubts that I didn’t have before I watched Brawl in Cell Block 99.

Rob: I’m nervous he’s going to jump to that “auteur” attitude before really earning it. He might need to collaborate a little more in order to flesh out his talent and not burn out. It’s funny because I was listening to your Donnie Darko podcast episode today, and it got me thinking about Richard Kelly, someone whose “unique vision” reached a level of incoherence that alienated him from audiences. I certainly don’t think Zahler is there yet, but it’s something to watch out for.

I like your point about the DudeBro POV. Bradley’s gradual descent into hell was interesting visually, but it really doesn’t amount to anything thematically more than “a real man will do anything to protect his helpless family,” which is super boring. Jennifer Carpenter’s character has zero agency. They’re in love because the movie says they’re in love. Marc Blucas (who, being a Buffy alumnus, caught my attention right away) gets one scene before he disappears until the last minute. For me, it all goes back to the characters. Bone Tomahawk had great ones. Brawl does not. It even gives up on being narratively interesting: that first transfer from the minimum-security to maximum-security prisons was cool because it set up clich├ęd relationships (The Ball-Busting Guard, The Friendly Magic Black Prison Mentor) and then took a hard-left turn and abandoned them. That felt subversive and smart, but the film never does anything like that again.

Adam: The minimum-security prison in this movie is there I think to juxtapose how awful cell block 99 is, but my goodness. “The Fridge,” as it’s called, is like a cottage. I couldn’t believe how plush this place was. It’s like yeah, take a break, here’s an unchallenging job, a tour guide, guards that want to be your friends and get you into sports, etc. I just wanted one character to be like “They call it The Fridge because there’s always something good to eat.” I was so much more interested in this wonderful prison retirement village than the second prison. I would have much rather seen Vaughn serve out his prison sentence in the nice prison and that’s the movie. If he boxed. Because otherwise him just making friends and shit would be boring.

I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this review. I could feel it as I was watching the movie. Sigh.
Rob: Yeah, we were clearly supposed to get comfortable in that first prison so that we’d see how bad shit gets once he leaves. He measures his commitment to his wife against his own comfort and survival, makes the choice we’d all like to think we’d make (again, bullshit masculinity), and deals with the consequences with a clear head. But again, once that decision is made, it stops being interesting. It’s almost comical by the time he gets all the way down to the Silent Hill bathroom and there’s glass and shit on the floor. Ugh! This movie is so undercooked. Remember the stun belt? Remember the twenty minutes spent setting it up and the two seconds we spent dispensing with it? Oh well.

Anyway, I don’t disagree with you on any point, but I think I’m going with a very soft Mark Ahn on Brawl in Cell Block 99, if only because it’s an interesting comparison with Bone Tomahawk and a film worth studying as we track Zahler’s career. Vaughn is great, and the violent moments you brought up (especially one involving a face and a cement floor) are gnarly as hell. But I’m not sure I’d ever watch it again.

Adam: Silent Hill bathroom is very funny. I’m going to vote a Mark Ahn for this one too, because what are reviews? I don’t even know anymore. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is no better or worse than, like, thirty of the forty-plus movies I watched during Scary Movie Month and I once recommended Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Brawl is better than that so whatever. It gets a Mark Ahn. I have a fun game to close out. Write down things that happen in this movie and I’ll reply to them.

Rob: Bradley breaks a guard’s arm in half.

Adam: Because a man takes care of his family and sometimes that means hurting good people.

Rob: Bradley gets his head smashed in by some other guards.

Adam: Because a man sometimes must take the hits so he can show his family he puts them above all else.

Rob: Udo Kier threatens to remove Bradley’s unborn daughter’s arms.

Adam: Because a man can do the worst things imaginable and because another man should stop that man because that’s what a man does, man.

You see what I’m saying? This movie should just be called Because a Man and the soundtrack should be entirely by a band created special for this movie called Because a Man and the crew should get hats that say BAM.

Rob: Speaking of soundtracks, did you notice that this movie uses that one generic “door creak” sound effect that every movie has? It made me giggle. Also, I bet I can find us hats that say BAM!

Adam: I didn’t notice. I was too distracted by the billion times we had to hear the shock collar/stun gun sound effect.

Here’s a link for the hats!

Rob: Check your mail in the next few days. I’m getting us matching hats. Until next time..

Adam: These seats are reserved. Because a man...


  1. Shame to hear you aren't fans. I really liked it and thought it was engaging all the way through, and I probably liked it better than Bone Tomohawk. Bone Tomohawk was great, don't get me wrong, but this felt more controlled and sure of itself. Reminded me of a John Boorman/Don Siegel man's man late '60s action flick, with extra gore.

    1. I think we both enjoyed it, but each had little nitpicks that made it not entirely come together. And we definitely agree on the man’s man tone. Glad you liked the movie!

    2. I didn't really enjoy it all that much but it shouldn't matter, should it? I'm happy that anyone likes any movie even if I do not. My taste are weird.

    3. Adam’s right, and I shouldn’t have spoken for him. My fault.

  2. This is one of the few reviews I've seen for this that wasn't highly praising it. I liked the movie but it never really reached the Bone Tomahawk level for me. I felt the runtime a lot more than I did in Tomahawk and that was a long movie too. I really liked Vaughn's performance and the character but it never really seemed like there were really that many stakes. No physical character seemed to pose as much of a challenge for him. The worst enemy he had in the film was the shock belt and he even managed to overcome that fairly quickly.

    My problem with Vince Vaughn in non-comedy movies was that he could never quite ditch the comedy persona. The fact that he underwent quite a physical transformation with the bald head at tattoo really helped me get rid of that. He was definitely doing the majority of the stunts and it made me think it would be pretty cool to see Vince Vaughn play a villain the John Wick franchise.

    1. I would love to see Vaughn as a John Wick bad guy.

  3. I liked it quite a bit. Really dug the grittiness of it without trying to be all clever. Just played out like an old, violent 70's exploitation "prison movie" and I thought Vaughan was good for once.

    1. But would it be better if there were a scene where they restored a classic car set to the song "Vehicle" like in Lock Up?

    2. Haha. Yeah, a music montage would've been fantastic!

  4. I liked the straightforwardness of it - the "here is what we're selling, buy it or dont" tone of the movie. I thought was slightly different than Bone Tomahawk because that one suckers you in through a western then takes that weird turn. Here, you are waiting for the movie to get where you know its going to end up, then pays off. I still think this guy has an even better movie in him, though.

  5. Several of these quibbles seem to be faulting the film for reasons it doesn't do what other films do (the "lack of direction" IS direction, and the films fight scenes feel unlike anything else I have seen). The other quibbles seem to be faulting the film for wanting to be about a very particular kind of man. I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to make a film with masculinity as a theme, even in 2017, the year of the "social thriller" and oh so so many "toxic" things the internet loves pointing out to us. This is conjecture, but I would imagine if you released Wild Bunch today people would call its thematic content "bullshit masculinity". A film can be about masculinity and not be "bullshit". (And no, I don't feel it's diminutive to have a guy want to fight for a better life; Carpenter and her unborn child are archetypes because they represent everything Bradley holds dear, and the antithesis to the world he dips his feet in to support them. Call him a shitty dad for being a drug runner, but don't fault the director for having a different set of societal ideals and values than you).

    This is very much not a film for everyone, but most of the criticisms here seem to be centered around personal projections of virtue and expectations based around other films that went unfulfilled. Occasionally, a simple "wasn't for me" may carry more wisdom than misattributing directing decisions and story choices you didn't agree with as lapses in "technical craft".

    For example: Vaughn and Carpenter aren't in love because the movie says they're in love, they're in love because they are recovering addicts who were brought closer by the death of their first son and are willing to work through trials that would potentially sink other couples. That was my take-away. To me, that take away holds much more evidence based on what the film actually presents than just writing it off just because it didn't land for me.

    Also, I don't think "archetype" is a dirty word.

    Love reading your guys' stuff, but I feel you're selling this one way too short.

    1. Hi Jake! You raise a lot of good points. I don't intend to dissuade anyone from seeing this movie at all. I qualified that I recommended the movie because a lot of other people are seeing qualities in it that I am not. All I was doing was speaking for myself based on my viewing experience. Thanks for commenting and providing your insight.

    2. Thanks for reading! I’ll concede that my comment about their marriage was reductive, though I do maintain Carpenter’s lack of characterization is a problem. I do not think archetypes are bad, either, just that I expected more from a writer who had proven himself in this area before (it’s not like Bone Tomahawk doesn’t have archetypes; he just elevated them in that film). I think developing other characters would have given Vaughn’s stark, straightforward mission more texture in contrast.

      I have no issue with the type of masculinity depicted in the film. I like macho movies as much as anyone. My issue was that it wasn’t interesting after the first hour and that the film offers no real challenge to it. In the end, I recommended this one because, despite my disappointment in the writing, it’s well-made and there is absolutely value in its message.

      Thanks again for the insight!