Saturday, 14 October 2017

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 - London Film Festival review

Part of the BFI London Film Festival's cult strand, S. Craig Zahler's follow up to Bone Tomahawk is the Vince Vaughn revenge thriller (yes, really) Brawl in Cell Block 99.


If you're familiar with the work of Vince Vaughn, you'll probably know him from the immense potential he first showed in 1996's Swingers (as Trent, a loudmouth ladies man who glides through the L.A. scene on his effortless charm), followed by 20 years of comedies of varying degrees of quality. He's dipped his toes into dramatic waters in that time (2001's thriller Domestic Disturbance and last year's Mel Gibson helmed Hacksaw Ridge, for example), but it's as a comedic actor that he's best known. Which is why Brawl in Cell Block 99 makes for such a bold (and bald) move from Vaughn; using his imposing physical presence to deliver a character who's like nothing else we've seen from him before.

Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) starts the film as a man down on his luck, losing his auto repair job and discovering that his wife Lauren (Dexter's Jennifer Carpenter) has been having an affair. Choosing to step up rather than walk away, he uses his connections to get a job in drug trafficking that will help rebuild his family life. Cut to 18 months later, and Bradley and Lauren have become an old fashioned criminal success story, with a new house and a baby on the way. It's virtually impossible to say anything more about the plot of the film without spoiling it, but needless to say things go sour for Bradley and prison awaits him.


If I can pick one word to describe Brawl..., it's violent. But if I can have a second word it's slow. Sometimes frustratingly so. Some scenes of Vaughn walking down corridors or stairwells bring to mind the episode of The Simpsons where Bart and Milhouse are late to school, leading to a contest to see who can walk the slowest before Milhouse freaks out and runs off into the distance. When I watched this film I felt like Milhouse, having to keep myself from yelling at the screen for Vaughn to get moving while I watched a man the size of a mountain walk quarter speed, like Herman Munster had gone to prison.

Having said that, you would anticipate from the title that this film takes place mostly in a prison, but you would be wrong. It's over an hour into the film before Vaughn even arrives in prison, and it's not even the correct prison where the actual brawl of the title is due to take place. As described by Don Johnson's warden, this is not maximum security, it's "minimum freedom", with all of the electro-shock belts and bone breaking that go with it. That's not to say that the preceding hour doesn't have its moments of thrills, action and rage, but it's a long wait for the promise of that purposely Grindhouse-style title to arrive. But when it does, oh boy.

An example of Bradley's pent up rage is shown to us early on when he arrives home to discover his wife's affair. He methodically and effectively beats up her car, taking off wing mirror appendages and the hood of the car like it's a real life Street Fighter 2 bonus round. The scene is not especially dramatic or emblematic of Bradley's violent nature, but serves to show us that when violence is needed, this is a guy who has anger and strength in reserves and can clinically execute an opponent.


S. Craig Zahler has clearly chosen to aim for a slower, 1970s thriller vibe (if this film existed 40 years ago, it would have starred Charles Bronson for sure), and although he over shoots the target by some way, this film has enough pitch black dark humour, extreme face trauma and moments of genuinely shocking violence that it needs to be seen with as big as an audience as possible. If you need a litmus test to find out which of your friends are as deeply disturbed as you are, watch this with them and listen to the laughter flow.

Despite some knock-off '90s Tarantino style dialogue (no one says handcuff him, they all say "give him jewellery"), there's so much to enjoy about Brawl..., largely down to the presence of Vince Vaughn who, trying to give his career a shot in the arm and show audiences what he's capable of, has succeeded in surprising all of us.

Verdict
3.5/5

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