Friday, 13 October 2017

LFF 2017: Brawl In Cell Block 99

dir. S Craig Zahler, USA, 2017
Those of us who have felt increasingly let down by Vince Vaughn over the years have great cause to rejoice with the advent of Bone Tomahawk brutalist S Craig Zahler’s Brawl In Cell Block 99. Channelling a ‘90s Bruce Willis in a role that even that celebrated “Hollywood hard man” might have found a smidge too murdery, Vaughn helps to shape Brawl into a slab of pulp fiction with the emphasis heavily on the pulp, not least in terms of what happens to quite a few bad guys’ faces.

Vaughn is terrific in a measured, smouldering role that sees his decent blue-collar Joe falling on hard times and turning to his former drug-running career to support his family. Predictably, a delicate deal goes south, and Vaughn finds himself heading for the titular incarceration facility where prisoners’ rights are an alien concept and survival depends on keeping your head down or taking other people's off.

The slow-burning mood is established in a tremendous early scene where a furious Vaughn carefully and methodically BEATS UP A CAR with his bare fists, savagely ripping off the bonnet before incongruously and thoughtfully removing one of the lamps from the headlight as if extracting a stone from an olive. This considered destruction sets the tone for a film that takes its sweet time getting where it’s going, which works both for and against it: the surprising intensity of the inevitable jail-based fisticuffs undoubtedly benefits from the languorous nature of the build-up, but on the other hand the first act goes on for about 70 minutes, which may be taking things a bit far.
One of the two things in this image is considerably harder than the other

As is evident by the finale though, “taking things a bit far” is absolutely the order of the day as far as Zahler is concerned. Brawl In Cell Block 99 is not really suitable for the squeamish in much the same way that a lorry load of broken glass is not really suitable for filling a sandpit: Vaughn rearranges so many body parts and faces on his voyage to the depths of humanity that the supporting cast begin to resemble some of Picasso’s more bizarrely-proportioned portraits.

It’s this head-smooshing carnage for which the film will be remembered, but that would be to neglect Vaughn’s remarkable work. He’s funny without being comedic, charming while being barbaric and his force-of-nature protagonist is a refreshing addition to the tough guy canon: at one point he takes his shirt off to reveal that not only is he not stacked like a Marvel superhero, he’s actually a bit podgy, which lends his character the kind of vulnerability and identification you don’t get with most of the generic beefcake you see onscreen.

Given its lean and mean nature, it’s surprising that there are a couple of plot developments that don’t quite add up – in fact if you think about it for long enough, the entire plot makes no sense – but that’s almost certainly not what you’ll be talking about on your way out of the cinema, if indeed you still retain the capacity for speech at all. Brawl In Cell Block 99 is jaw-dropping in more than one sense, and when you pick yours up off the floor as you leave, spare a thought for those you’ve just seen who can’t.

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