All along “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” S. Craig Zahler’s road-to-perdition follow-up to his similarly descent-tinged debut feature “Bone Tomahawk,” you can feel just as much what the writer-director is railing against in his genre choices as what he’s flexing.
Action heroes are too cheeky and boyish, so Vince Vaughn’s cornered bruiser is grown-ass, dedicated to his family, and stoic. Fights have become quick-cut messes, so these scraps will be in long takes, and you’ll be able to tell Vaughn is performing them. The stakes in these scenarios tend to be glib and empty, so this one will curdle your blood with the threat to the hero before dropping you into a medieval hell from which there appears no escape.
If it’s been a while since you’ve felt the cold blast and hard crunch of midnight-movie meanness, Zahler’s shaping up to be your guy — the one selling illicit thrills out of the trunk of a well-restored, vinyl-topped LTD — and with “Brawl,” he sets himself further apart from his more schlock-minded contemporaries in cult cinema.
Vaughn, shorn of hair and sporting a thick cross tattoo on the back of his head, plays Bradley, a well-spoken former boxer who in his first scene, getting fired from his auto repair job, looks ready to do damage. (Asked how he’s feeling, his response is the tartly pithy, “South of OK, north of cancer.” He also corrects anyone who calls him “Brad.”)
It’s when he comes to their rundown home and learns that his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter, “Dexter”) has been cheating on him that we get the violence appetizer, or amuse-bash: Bradley taking it out on their car with his bare hands. But then he and Lauren — each acknowledging a history of substance abuse, and circumstances that have been tough on the relationship — calmly talk it out and decide to give it another go, along with the risky decision of Bradley returning to work as a drug runner for old friend Gil (Marc Blucas).
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Within two years, though, they’ve moved to a swankier house, and the couple is closer: Lauren is happily pregnant and Bradley, who manages a smile referring to their forthcoming baby as “the koala,” is looking forward to paternity leave. A shipment pickup at the docks for a Mexican kingpin (Dion Mucciacito), however, devolves into a police shootout, albeit one in which Bradley, recognizing a no-win scenario, cuts down his own trigger-happy crew members (whom his instincts initially pegged as bad news) to prevent further cop bloodshed. Refusing to name names, Bradley gets seven years in a medium-security center, but he accepts his fate, knowing he’ll have a loving wife and kid to see on the flip side.
Zahler’s vibe until now, when his anti-hero is entering prison, is droll yet charged, a patient accumulation of heroic qualities and archly amusing, Elmore Leonard-like exchanges, although the conversational enjoyment “Bone Tomahawk” offered among its eccentric posse members was richer than the build-up here. But you at least know something’s coming to test Bradley’s zen-methodical aura of serene, principled masculinity beyond prison guard jokes about his height and one officer’s nagging attempts to get Bradley to join the boxing program.
And that pivot into grindhouse territory, when it arrives, is a chilling one-two punch: a nervy home invasion scene with Lauren, and a prison visit by cartel envoy Udo Kier, who creepily explains — as if Kier had any other delivery mode — what will happen to Bradley’s wife and unborn child if he doesn’t rectify the botched smuggling operation by getting transferred to a certain maximum-security penitentiary and killing a specified inmate.
“Brawl” enters its mano-a-mano third act in the dungeon-like Red Leaf prison with a steady, serious cascade of Bradley-engineered aggression, in fights choreographed by Drew Leary for maximum pain and minimum style. Zahler and cinematographer Benji Bakshi, reteaming after “Bone Tomahawk,” eschew that western’s more textured frontier hues for the increasingly sickly, washed-out tones of a worsening nightmare.
Vaughn, whose only worthy dialogue sparring partner in these scenes is Don Johnson’s cigar-chomping warden/torturer — a man fond of a shock-administering stun belt — fulfills the early promise of his imposing frame by bringing a vicious sense of righteous purpose to Bradley’s every body blow, limb snap, and pulverizing stomp. It’s like being scared and exhilarated at the same time, even if the aftertaste isn’t what you’d call pleasant. But it’s safe to say the motormouth rake of countless forgettable comedies is gone, and Vaughn has a bright Neeson-esque future cracking heads if he so chooses.
At over two hours, “Brawl in Cell Block 99” could test the mayhem anticipation levels of more attention-starved exploitation fans. But the fact that Zahler marches to the beat of his own pummeling fist, going so far as to get the O’Jays and Butch Tavares to expressively croon his own ’70s-inspired soul compositions, is part of the low-down, nasty, self-satisfied magnetism of this two-fisted exercise.