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.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?