Brawl in Cell Block 99
Directed by: S. Craig Zahler
Run time: 132 minutes
The Lowdown: First things first, no – this is not a new release, but a bonafide cult classic that was released in late December 2017.
More so, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a true masterpiece of genre cinema, and as such, BVB is just happy to finally have the time to tell you why the second feature film from writer-director S. Craig Zahler deserves to be at the very tip-top of your Must-See list.
Zahler previously directed 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, which was one of the best films released that year, and one of the best, most brutal Westerns ever filmed. (Seriously, if you haven’t yet seen Bone Tomahawk, you need to fix that, stat!)
Zahler is a true visionary. He’s the closest our generation has come to finding its own Quentin Tarantino, and he might just be better than Tarantino in both the stories he tells and the ways that he tells them.
What he has accomplished with Brawl in Cell Block 99 is nothing short of revelatory. Zahler has taken the guts of a gritty 1970’s crime drama and infused it with the raw urgency of an exploitation classic. Next, he’s constructed a sympathetic Frankenstein of a character in Bradley Thomas, a former boxer turned trusted muscle for a drug lord.
Thomas is a family man. He’s married to Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), who is pregnant with their first child. You know he’s a good guy because when he finds out his wife had a brief fling, instead of yelling at her or beating her, he goes outside and destroys her car, literally, with his fists, smashing the windows, the side view mirrors and even the hood.
What you need to know about Thomas is that he’s played by Vince Vaughn, and this is Vaughn as you’ve never seen him before. The only role that comes close is one of Vaughn’s first, in Clay Pigeons, as charismatic serial killer Lester Long. Vaughn keeps the same inflection as Long, but Thomas is a whole new level of badass.
It’s impossible not to overstate that this is Vaughn making his John Travolta in Pulp Fiction bid for acting greatness. If there was any justice in Hollywood, Vaughn would be included on the short list for Best Actor. Seriously, his performance is magnificent.
Thomas is asked by his drug lord to personally oversee a major score. He doesn’t like the two muscle-head meatballs he is forced to work with, but he does it because guys like Thomas don’t make the plans, they just follow orders.
Of course, the deal goes spectacularly worse than anyone could have imagined, and Thomas finds himself in a serious bind. Confined and unable to care for Lauren, Thomas receives an offer – do whatever he has to do to get transferred to the nearby maximum-security facility and take care of a dude who is being housed there. If he does that, he will earn his freedom.
Upon arriving at the maximum-security facility, he meets Warden Tuggs (a game Don Johnson, relishing just how evil of a man he is playing) and eventually learns that his target is being kept in Cell Block 99, a hellhole of a solitary confinement where only the worst offenders go. Thomas must do what he has to do to get put there, and Vaughn does so with minimal dialogue and a whole lot of beatdowns and broken bones.
At this point, you’re only about 90 minutes into Brawl in Cell Block 99, and I can say without spoiling anything that the last 40-plus minutes are among the most white-knuckle, most unpredictable, most brutal minutes you’ve likely experienced watching a movie in quite some time.
Before the credits roll, you’ll be gasping, crying, emotionally spent and jacked up all at the same time.
Zahler has created something wholly original, a movie that feels like a long-lost grindhouse classic, dusted off and gussied up to reflect our modern times. He infuses certain scenes with a wonderful and funky Motown-era playlist that helps carry several scenes where the action takes center stage and words are no longer needed.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is exhilarating. It’s like a punch in the mouth that leaves you begging to be hit again.
If you haven’t seen it, you simply must. If you have, it’s time to revisit it for a second or third viewing.
This was one of the best films released in all of 2017, and it demands to be seen and shared and championed.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – Yes.
Nudity – Yes.
Gore – Extreme fight damage.
Drug use – Yes.
Bad Guys/Killers – There’s a whole slew of bad folks to choose from. I pick Don Johnson.
Buy/Rent – Buy it. Now.
Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight (Epic Pictures/Dread Central Presents, 105 minutes, Unrated, Video-on-Demand): Every culture has its touchstone when it comes to the zombie genre.
American audiences have the George A. Romero triumvirate of Night, Dawn and Day of the Dead. The Brits have Shawn of the Dead. The Aussies have Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead. South Koreans can claim Train to Busan.
It’s time to add China to that list with Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight, a wild, raucous, infectiously fun thrill ride that perfectly mixes live-action and anime, zombies and giant chickens and more.
Zombiology is the story of Lung and Chi-Yeung, two long-time geek-happy friends who believe they possess the power of the Double Dragons of Heaven and Earth, an anime they think mirrors their real lives, which allows them to protect the ones they love much.
But then an actual zombie uprising begins, launched by the Big Bad from their favorite anime, who just happens to be a giant evil chicken with the ability to lay dozens of telekinetic eggs that explode on contact with someone’s head.
Yes, this is bat-guano-crazy on a scale of one to 10, and really must be seen to be fully appreciated.
Wastelander (Indican Pictures, 90 minutes, Unrated, Video-on-Demand): Take it from me, I love a good dystopian, post-apocalyptic action movie as much as the next guy.
I was raised in the early days, back before Mad Max was a genre template; back when Fred Williamson was a total badass in 1990: The Bronx Warriors; back when Patrick Swayze was toplining Steel Dawn.
Movies have changed a lot since then, and mostly for the better. You can still find solid low-budget offerings on Netflix, drive-in-worthy flicks like Bounty Killer and the instant cult classic Turbo Kid.
So, maybe that’s why I get so disappointed when I watch a film like Wastelander because I know now that it’s not money or top-notch special effects that makes a post-apocalyptic action film great, it’s the effort and desire by the creative team involved to make something totally cool.
Wastelander definitely qualifies as low-budget, and writer-director Angelo Lopes definitely nails the post-apocalyptic set design, but his script fails to find a narrative tether to invest viewers and hook them. His hero, Rhyous (Brendan Guy Murphy), looks cool and is quick on the draw with his guns, but he isn’t the most loquacious fellow, which also makes it difficult for viewers to know exactly what his mission is.
Maybe I’m in the minority here, so I will simply say this: If you’re a fan of Mad Max and Turbo Kid, and all the awful to great like-minded films in-between, then you should seek out Wastelander on your favorite streaming platform and judge for yourself.
The Girl Without Hands
Daddy’s Home 2
Steve McQueen: American Icon