LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 – the second feature from S. Craig Zahler – screened at Empire Haymarket (12 OCT). Here’s our writeup.

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 screened at Empire Haymarket (12 OCT).

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017, USA, 132min)

From its ice-cold blue collar opening to its firey pits of hell ending, this was our second film in one day divided into two distinct halves (see also Brazilian fairy tale GOOD MANNERS).

Vince Vaughn unites BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99’s above- and below-ground settings with his impressive hulking presence. He plays Bradley Thomas, a determined-to-be nice guy drug runner who falls foul of the competition. Jennifer Carpenter is his pregnant wife, Lauren, whilst Don Johnson might as well be the devil in disguise as Warden Tuggs. Udo Kier gets only a few lines but they will chill you to the bone.

This is the second feature from BONE TOMAHAWK director S. Craig Zahler and, despite the impressive buzz, it doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor. Whilst TOMAHAWK could never be described as ‘lean’, there’s something deeply rewarding about the way its jaw-ripping conclusion suddenly hijacks what has been a shaggy-dog hike through the hills. You sense very early on that something’s coming but don’t realise what until it’s way too late.

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 screened at Empire Haymarket (12 OCT).

“Im tired of always getting the goddamned skimmed milk”

Here, we know immediately what Bradley’s capable of, venting his fury with a DIY demolition of his wife’s car. After a bungled drugs pickup lands him in prison, the fights come interspersed with screw-tightening bits of plot giving BRAWL an episodic, ‘waiting for the next punch up’ kind of feel. There’s little surprise, suspense or intrigue. Just an inevitable conveyorbelt of carnage.

Structural issues aside, this is brazen, brilliant entertainment with a great central performance. Vaughn replaces his familiar ‘adult idiot’ partypiece with steadfast stoicism, grim one liners and considerable physical grace. There’s something of the Boris Karloff about him as he lumbers through scene after scene, a tattooed force of full throttle devastation.

“I’m more of a finisher”

Throughout, S. Craig Zahler and director of photography Benji Bakshi hold the camera at a distance, editing sparsely so we can appreciate the stately fight choreography (think Gene Kelly with added bone breaking). There’s no blurred flurry of fists and rapid-fire cutting here. Instead we get deliberate, precise, blow and block brawling that always culminates in ripped cartilidge and shattered bone. The more Bradley fights, the more horrors we see.

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 thrills through its transgressions, repeatedly violating the human body in extreme ways (and that includes the obscene threat that drives Bradley into the depths). Matters are reinforced by a nightmarish production design that swaps clinical incarceration in the first half for a medieval torture chamber in the second (“I suspect Amnesty International wouldn’t approve of the contents of this room”). Startling practical effects deliver each and every gruesome punchline.

Go see it and wait for people to walk out in disgust. It’s that kind of film.


LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 screened at Empire Haymarket (12 OCT).

Featured images: BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017).