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Prison Precision: S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl In Cell Block 99 (2017) – Blu-ray review

December 15, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Come for the promise of bloodshed, stay for Zahler and Vaughn’s smart fusion of arthouse and grindhouse, a slow-burning character study of a pragmatic psychotic.

Cell Block 99

Brawl In Cell Block 99
(S. Craig Zahler, 2017)

Brawl In Cell Block 99 is a title that recalls the exploitation movies of days gone by: the kind of lean, muscular actioner that Don Siegel or John Carpenter might once have made.  With his second film, S. Craig Zahler reaffirms his claim to being the heir apparent to these directors, but it’s precisely because he goes his own way that he warrants the comparison.

Just as in his debut, Bone Tomahawk, Zahler plays a long game.  His naturalistic style, all long takes and lived-in performances, feels closer to the art-house than the straight-to-video feel of films’ premises.  And yet, in both films, the screws are tightened (literally here, as friendly prison guards give way to a more inhospitable bunch) and the violence becomes uncompromisingly brusque.  It’s all the more effective because of the gradual shift from poverty-row realism to Grand Guignol grotesquerie.

The result is exactly the short, sharp shock of a B-movie it promises to be… but tagged onto the end of an impressive character study that enriches the mood long before Vince Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas starts his arm-ripping, head-stomping rampage. The narrative is incredibly depressing on the face of it: the high point comes at the start when Bradley loses his job, and from there the only way is down.  And yet, as the film pivots on its awful, barely comprehensible ultimatum – kill a prisoner or see his unborn child mutilated while still in the womb – Bradley starts to make his own luck.  As he says, you can’t rely on the law of averages for a break, so it’s probably inevitable that Bradley supplies the breaks himself.

Zahler is a remarkable exponent of the ‘show, don’t tell’ school of filmmaking, and he has a willing guinea pig in Vaughn.  This is a revelatory performance, dropping the actor’s usual slickster charm for a fierce, focussed pragmatism.  The likeability that led Vaughn into comedy is redeployed into the soulful concentration of a guy battling inner demons, struggling to right his moral compass – and with real grace, he allows himself to be the straight man to some darkly comic cameos, notably from Fred Melamed as a prickly prison guard and Don Johnson, instantly in the pantheon of great ‘sadistic warden’ performances.

And, man, can Vaughn and Zahler do action.  A lesser director would lose the calm assurance of those early scenes when handling the fights, but Zahler shoots and cuts with a methodical sense of space.  The brawl(s) don’t disappoint – frankly, they’re near-unwatchable in their graphic brutality – but Vaughn’s unflustered fighting style helps to define the film’s patient precision.  Faced with an inmate who asks if he wants to start something, Vaughn replies laconically, “I’m more of a finisher,” and the results are like watching a master craftsman whose craft just happens to be mayhem.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and on demand.

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