With his sophomore outing, Brawl in Cell Block 99, S. Craig Zahler solidifies himself as a persuasive purveyor of pulp parable and schlock satire. Here, it’s the story of Bradley Thomas, a tow-truck driver who’s laid off and laid low by news at home before a recommittal to both a reeling marriage and a felonious lifestyle of running drugs.
As Bradley (never Brad), Vince Vaughn convincingly transforms into Vincent D’Onofrio for a couple of hours, and consider it the highest compliment that the only way this could be better is if D’Onofrio had done it himself. Vaughn looks like a meatball not yet totally pounded into cohesion. That cross on his head has stations pounded into it, too, and those hand wounds look like … well, you know, only if this Christ figure dies, it’s for his own sins.
This ranks right up there with Punch-Drunk Love as a radical inversion of a comedy star’s bankable persona — a dismantling of Vaughn’s motor-mouth and ramping-up of the darkness behind his goofily outmoded white-male schlub routine. There is a scene in which Vaughn suggests the improbability of the law of averages working against him as often as it does in which it seems like he’s going to rip off his own fingers.
Vaughn’s barehanded destruction of a Mitsubishi serves several functions: Bradley is not a man to be trifled with, he seems to have constructed his entire countenance as a go-bag for going to prison, and there’s also a futility to the rage with which he tries to dismantle larger, complex systems. (Not for nothing are there so many scenes set beneath, and about, the American flag, or how many someone owns.) Bradley, after all, is the sort of guy who walks a straight line until the path runs into another immovable object and simply turns left or right.
All of this serves as the undercurrent of Zahler’s grindhouse exploitation here, explored to less interesting ends than the manifest destiny of his first film, Bone Tomahawk, but no less pruriently entertaining. Gory, yes, even if nothing touches the halved man of “Tomahawk” (although we do take seriously the threat of severed limbs in a Zahler movie). It’s also certainly lively enough BEFORE a popular 1980s TV star turns up as the warden of Redleaf — the “minimum-freedom” prison in which Bradley finds himself. There’s also a cheeky purity to the punitive nature of Redleaf; Bradley jumps from Cell Block 12 to Cell Block 56 — more or less halfway to Cell Block 99 — as he moves through the facility.
I’ve seen some hemming and hawing about its purported racist connotations; the one pejorative Bradley utters is clearly a ruse to provoke someone into a necessary fistfight. In fact, early on, he chides his best friend for debating how to best pronounce the “friendly” version of another epithet. I’ve also seen carping about the length, which not only separates it from Lock Up, Death Warrant and their contemporary equivalents but also lets all the good stuff ripple under the surface in this story about a Frankenstein’s monster fashioned from an equally futile source of modern male rage.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is available now to rent or purchase on digital streaming platforms.