With his debut feature Bone Tomahawk (2015), writer and director S. Craig Zahler exhibited that he is a fan and advocate of genre cinema. With his second feature Brawl in Cell Block 99, he proves himself a master of it by continuing to make films which defy expectations and explanation.
Following the story of Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn), a devoted husband to Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), who reluctantly turns to drug-running to support his soon-to-be-growing family. After a pickup goes wrong, he finds himself serving a prison sentence in FRJ - colloquially referred to as 'The Fridge'; a prison battleground. And to say any more than that would do the film and potential audience members a disservice.
Vaughn is almost unrecognisable with his shaven/tattooed head and bulked up frame. He gives a career-best, bruising, physical performance as his hulking presence dominates both frame and film. An early scene, where he dismantles a car with his bare hands, punching through windows and thumping off mirrors, is an indication of his brutish prowess. However, it must be said his character is no mindless thug, following his strong moral compass (quite contrarian for a drug-runner) and an unwavering patriotic stance. Utilising his not-inconsiderable charm, Bradley (never Brad, by the way) is a bit of a throwback to anti-heroes of old; always cracking wise, even in the face of physical pain or emotional turmoil, with a touch of noir. The hard-boiled dialogue employed is expertly written and delivered and is, at times, laugh out loud funny, contributing to the strong gallows humour that runs throughout.
In contrast, there are bursts of shocking, graphic violence which erupt onto the screen out of nowhere, reminiscent of the so-called ultra-violence from graphic novels and comic books, or the ‘Asia Extreme’ wave of films at the turn of the century. I watched the film in a packed screen and these moments elicited audible gasps, winces, and in one or two cases, (including my own) laughter. Incredibly it features a tailor-made soundtrack where all the songs featured were written by S. Craig Zahler and Jeff Herriott, and performed by Butch Tavares, Adi Armour and The O’Jays. Soulful and steeped in classic rhythm and blues, it adds another layer to this already impressive piece of work.
Like his previous film, this is another slow-burn, steadily paced exercise that expertly builds tension as it gears up towards the largely unexpected, denouement gleefully hopping over the borders between genres for its duration. I, for one, can’t wait for S. Craig Zahler’s next film (which will once again star Vince Vaughn) and will no doubt continue these trends and may lead to a, dare I say it, Vaughn-aissance that I am fully on board for.