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

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.