by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
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.
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.
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
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 clichéd 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.
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...