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

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

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…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Sorry I’m late. I was taking a crap.

The Sting (1973)
(SPOILERS) In any given list of the best things – not just movies – ever, Mark Kermode would include The Exorcist, so it wasn’t a surprise when William Friedkin’s film made an appearance in his Nine films that should have won Best Picture at the Oscars list last month. Of the nominees that year, I suspect he’s correct in his assessment (I don’t think I’ve seen A Touch of Class, so it would be unfair of me to dismiss it outright; if we’re simply talking best film of that year, though, The Exorcist isn’t even 1973’s best horror, that would be Don’t Look Now). He’s certainly not wrong that The Exorcistremains a superior work” to The Sting; the latter’s one of those films, like The Return of the King and The Departed, where the Academy rewarded the cast and crew too late. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the masterpiece from George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, not this flaccid trifle.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You had to grab every single dollar you could get your hands on, didn't you?

Triple Frontier (2019)
(SPOILERS) Triple Frontier must have seemed like a no-brainer for Netflix, even by their standards of indiscriminately greenlighting projects whenever anyone who can’t get a job at a proper studio asks. It had, after all, been a hot property – nearly a decade ago now – with Kathryn Bigelow attached as director (she retains a producing credit) and subsequently JC Chandor, who has seen it through to completion. Netflix may not have attracted quite the same level of prospective stars – Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum were all involved at various points – but as ever, they haven’t stinted on the production. To what end, though? Well, Bigelow’s involvement is a reliable indicator; this is a movie about very male men doing very masculine things and suffering stoically for it.

What lit the fire that set off our Mr Reaper?

Death Wish (2018)
(SPOILERS) I haven’t seen the original Death Wish, the odd clip aside, and I don’t especially plan to remedy that, owing to an aversion to Charles Bronson when he isn’t in Once Upon a Time in the West and an aversion to Michael Winner when he wasn’t making ‘60s comedies or Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirots. I also have an aversion to Eli Roth, though (this is the first of his oeuvre I’ve seen, again the odd clip aside, as I have a general distaste for his oeuvre), and mildly to Bruce when he’s on autopilot (most of the last twenty years), so really, I probably shouldn’t have checked this one out. It was duly slated as a fascistic, right-wing rallying cry, even though the same slaters consider such behaviour mostly okay if the protagonist is super-powered and wearing a mask when taking justice into his (or her) own hands, but the truth is this remake is a quite serviceable, occasionally amusing little revenger, one that even has sufficient courage in its skewed convictions …

Poor A. A. Milne. What a ghastly business.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
The absolutely true story of how P. L. Travers came to allow Walt Disney to adapt Mary Poppins, after 20 years’ persistent begging on the latter’s part. Except, of course, it isn’t true at all. Walt has worked his magic from beyond the grave over a fairly unremarkable tale of mutual disagreement. Which doesn’t really matter if the result is a decent movie that does something interesting or though-provoking by changing the facts… Which I’m not sure it does. But Saving Mr. Banks at least a half-decent movie, and one considerably buoyed by the performances of its lead actors.

Actually, Mr. Banks is buoyed by the performances of its entire cast. It’s the script that frequently lets the side down, laying it on thick when a lighter touch is needed, repeating its message to the point of nausea. And bloating it out not so neatly to the two-hour mark when the story could have been wrapped up quite nicely in a third less time. The title itself could perhaps be seen as rubbi…

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)
Cheeseburger Film Sandwich. Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon. Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie. Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie, arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate terms, it only sporadically fulfils…

Trouble’s part of the circus. They said Barnum was in trouble when he lost Tom Thumb.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
(SPOILERS) Anyone of a mind that it’s a recent development for the Oscars to cynically crown underserving recipients should take a good look at this Best Picture winner from the 25thAcademy Awards. In this case, it’s generally reckoned that the Academy felt it was about time to honour Hollywood behemoth Cecil B DeMille, by that point into his seventies and unlikely to be jostling for garlands much longer, before it was too late. Of course, he then only went and made a bona fide best picture contender, The Ten Commandments, and only then pegged it. Because no, The Greatest Show on Earth really isn’t very good.