By Adam Ray Palmer
Festivals and S. Craig Zahler go hand in hand recently. I saw Bone Tomahawk in 2015 at LFF and now Brawl in Cell Block 99 at Venezia74.
This was one of my most anticipated at Venezia74 and it didn’t disappoint me.
Vince Vaughn plays Bradley, a measured bruiser who's just been laid off from his job. He goes home to find his partner, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), sitting in her car readying herself to leave. Bradley finds out she has been cheating on him and this is where we first see the devastation that can be caused by his hands. In a fit of anger, Bradley defaces the car so aggressively, tearing his hands to shreds. This excessive violence is a common theme in a Zahler picture, and by no means the last of it here.
Now, Bradley needs money and fast to get out of spiralling misfortune. So, he turns to Gil, a crime boss who needs a courier who can handle himself. 18 months later, Bradley and Lauren live in a plush house with a baby on the way, in 99 days in fact as Bradley counts down. With this rich new way of life, Gil (Marc Blucas) calls on him more. This leads to the biggest shipment deal yet, $3.2 million worth of drugs to be collected with the assistance from two Mexican brawlers who are employed by Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito), a big-name mobster from over the border.
When events go awry, Bradley finds himself behind bars for the best part of seven years. To make matters worse, only one of the Mexican henchman made it out alive and the millions are lost, so now Eleazar is owed a debt. Lauren is taken by the mobster and held until Bradley does a job for him from within the 'fridge'. Kill an inmate in Cell Block 99 and the debt is squashed. He just needs to get here first.
Vince Vaughn is at his best in years here. He's calculating, strong-willed and in a shape that you wouldn't want to mess with. Zahler's script gets the best out of Vaughn, allowing him to have fun with a few quips back and forth as he's a natural in the comedy genre. Even when the brutal scenes arrive though, you completely forget that he's out his comfort zone. He's dark, meticulous and intimidating.
Like Bone Tomahawk, S. Craig Zahler loves to have a strong and vocal lead protagonist and Vince is all encompassing. Where Kurt Russell was a lot louder in voice in Tomahawk, Vaughn certainly lets his hands do the talking. It's very John Wick-esque but with a slicker script. The tension and build up to the final 30 minutes is everything, and that penmanship from Zahler shines throughout.
With a run time of 2 hours 15 minutes, you expect the film to drag, but it really doesn't. It's engrossing and you strangely will for Bradley to succeed. Yes, he's a criminal, but like the interviewing detective says, he has a moral compass and that's enough for you to get behind him and tear the 'bad guys' apart. The final violent sequences are explicit like you would expect from Zahler with a standout violent scene reminiscent of the body that splits in half in Tomahawk.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 starts slow, but soon ramps up into an out and out thrill-fest. Zahler once again delivers his words expertly onto screen and every scene packs a punch, either emotionally or literally. This is certainly another humdinger and Zahler is fast-becoming a filmmaker on the rise and a favourite of mine. And that ending... it's so satisfying - a must-see.
Cineroom's Rating: 4 stars
Brawl in Cell Block 99 will be released later this year - certificate 18.