Skip to main content

This place sure isn’t like that one in Austria.

Brawl in Cell Block 99
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Brawl in Cell Block 99 is most definitely cut from the same cloth as writer-director-co-composer Craig S Zahler’s previous flick Bone Tomahawk: an inexorable, slow-burn suspenser that works equally well as a character drama. That is, when it isn’t revelling in sporadic bursts of ultraviolence, including a finale in a close-quartered pit of hell. If there’s nothing quite as repellent as that scene in Bone Tomahawk, it’s never less than evident that this self-professedchild of Fangoria” loves his grue. He also appears to have a predilection for, to use his own phraseology, less politically correct content.


With Bone Tomahawk, one might have charitably put Zahler’s choices down to making a monster movie that incidentally, albeit insensitively, incorporated Native American cannibal killer antagonists with a particularly savage modus operandi for treating their house guests. But pile on Brawl in Cell Block 99, and then that Zahler’s forthcoming Dragged Across Concrete co-stars Mel Gibson (and reteams both with Vince Vaughn), and you begin to suspect he’s either actively courting controversy (although he doesn’t seem particularly keen on broaching the subject in interviews) or brandishes certain latent, unsavoury tendencies.


In Brawl in Cell Block 99, Vaughn’s (presumably) former white supremacist Bradley Thomas is running drugs for buddy Gil (Marc Blucas), a conscious decision designed to improve his and pregnant girlfriend Lauren’s (Jennifer Carpenter) quality of life. When a pickup turns sour and he’s sent to the slammer, Bradley finds himself squaring up against a string of minorities (or just plain old foreigners, when it comes to Udo Keir’s Placid Man intermediary), most particularly in the form of a Latino drug gang who are both incompetent (its foot soldiers) and so thoroughly, horrendously evil (its leader) that they whistle up a horrifying method – courtesy of Zahler’s festering imagination – of punishing Bradley and his wife if he doesn’t do exactly what they say. Which is ostensibly to kill one Christopher Bridge, ensconced in Cell Block 99 of a maximum-security prison.


One might simply see Bradley’s “Don’t call me a foreigner. Last time I checked, the colours of the flag weren’t red, white and burrito” as a means to start a fight, which it is (his ascent – or descent, depending how you look at it – to his chosen destination, having started in an entirely different, relatively amenable prison, is remarkably smooth and efficient), but it comes after an earlier slight to his African-American guard (“Pretend you’re talking to God”: “He doesn’t smell like nachos”), the establishing of buddy Gil’s prejudice (he’s partial to using the n-word: “Don’t think someone like you can say that word anyway polite” observes Bradley), although clearly coded as a good guy (he blows away Kier at the end, while Lauren, who has been the damsel in distress up to this point, is allowed the token gesture of taking out the evil Korean abortionist), and the emphasis on patriotism (it’s the act of a patriot to save good, decent, patriotic cops from a couple of crazed, trigger-happy Mexicans). At very least, Zahler’s choices seem to be the choices of one wilfully, brazenly wading through a minefield (even to the extent of the first scene, in which Zahler’s at pains to emphasise Bradley’s good relationship with a black co-worker, evidently coded to pre-empt later accusations of racism, the kind of choice the director was saying he wasn’t making).


But then, provoking seems to be his thing. Zahler takes the time to map out Bradley’s inner rage and turmoil. It’s 45 minutes before he’s locked up, but one of the strongest scenes comes right at the start, as discovering his wife’s infidelity, he takes out his rage on her car before proceeding into the house and composedly – but tensely – discussing with her where they go from there (given the manner in which he essentially controls her, right through her pregnancy, it’s a wonder she didn’t take the opportunity to make a run for it, but perhaps she’s too cowed into emotional dependency by that point; it’s hard to tell, as Zahler offers her little autonomy). The scene informs Bradley’s behaviour from there on, taking his anger out on inanimate objects while being contained and restrained when necessary (most notably when he first receives a visit from gang rep the Placid Man).


The slow-but-sure unfolding comes into play with just about everything from the induction processes to prison tours. We acclimatise to each new environment with Bradley, and the sudden contrasts of action are thus all the more effective. Zahler refers to the violence in Brawl in Cell Block 99 as cathartic, but while I recognise that response, his particular brand of excess is to grisly to lose oneself in. Call it grindhouse, or exploitation; there’s a gleefulness to the cartoonish bone-snapping, skull-stamping, eye-gouging mayhem that doesn’t really do it for me. Zahler’s movies are exercises in overkill in this respect, long fuses building to periodic splintering and splattering and eviscerating.


Having said that, Zahler’s evidently an expert when it comes to structure and pacing and tone, and he reels you in as ominously and inexorably as he did with Bone Tomahawk. He’s ably supported by Vaughn, who may have entirely failed to carry off his sergeant in Hacksaw Ridge but entirely convinces as stomping, punching, kicking, pulverising unstoppable force. Carpenter’s strong in a part whose backend is rather thankless, while Don Johnson’s Warden Tuggs may not be as great a genre comeback as Jim Bob in Cold in July, but gives him an opportunity to flex the flinty authoritarian muscles. The score is first rate too, the retro electronica adding to the sense of a late ‘70s Carpenter movie (not that Carpenter really went in for this kind of gore, though). Zahler’s evidently a highly talented writer and director and musician, but I wonder at what point his less refined sensibilities – if that’s all they are – will bite him in his red, white and backside.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

We’re going to find that creature they call the Yeti.

The Abominable Snowman (1957)
The Abominable Snowman follows the first two Quatermass serials as the third Hammer adaptation of a Nigel Kneale BBC work. As with those films, Val Guest takes the directorial reins, to mixed results. Hammer staple Peter Cushing repeats his role from The Creature (the title of the original teleplay). The result is worthy in sentiment but unexceptional in dramatic heft. Guest fails to balance Kneale’s idea of essentially sympathetic creatures with the disintegration of the group bent on finding them.

Nevertheless, Kneale’s premise still stands out. The idea that the Yeti is an essentially shy, peaceful, cryptozoological beastie is now commonplace, but Kneale adds a further twist by suggesting that they are a distinct and in some respects more advance parallel branch in the evolution of hominids (the more extravagant notion that they are in some way extra-dimensional is absent, but with the powers thy sport here wouldn’t be such a leap). Cushing’s Rollason is…