"Close your eyes when you need to..."
That was the warning of director S. Craig Zahler to the audience at the Fantastic Fest premiere of "Brawl in Cell Block 99," his follow-up to "Bone Tomahawk." To say this warning was necessary is an understatement. One of the most graphically violent films I've ever watched in my life, this is a wild throwback to classic grindhouse pictures of the 1970s.
Vince Vaughn stars as Bradley Thomas, shaved bald with a giant cross tattoo on the back of his skull -- this is a hulking Vaughn as you've never seen him before. The film begins with him being laid off from his job as a tow truck driver only to get home to find out his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), has been having an affair.
He is a man with a unique moral code. Without laying a hand on her, he takes his frustrations out on her car, literally ripping the entire hood off with his bare hands and throwing it across the front yard. It's not exactly a subtle bit of foreshadowing but does give us a sense of what he is capable of.
Out of desperation for his livelihood and to save his marriage, he decides to take an old friend up on a job offer to run drugs. We flash forward 18 months to discover that things have worked out pretty well. They've upgraded to a much nicer home, and his wife is pregnant. Things seem like they're working out, which is exactly how you know they're about to go terribly wrong.
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A drug pickup ends in a police shootout, and the incident costs a very powerful man several million dollars in merchandise. Bradley is sent to a minimum security prison but is quickly visited by Udo Kier (credited only as Placid Man) to let him know that his wife has been kidnapped and things are going to be very unpleasant unless he kills an inmate to help cover this lost revenue. The only problem? The mission involves being transferred from his relatively cushy jail cell over to a maximum security facility, and the target is located in cell block 99 - essentially solitary confinement for only the very worst prisoners. You can probably see where this is going now.
Bradley takes out a prison guard (or three) in order to get immediately (and conveniently) transferred to the other prison, and it only gets worse from there. Upon arrival, he is greeted by the sinister Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson) who immediately makes a joke about how the facilities are not approved by Amnesty International. You get the feeling pretty quickly that Guantanamo Bay would be like Club Med compared to these digs.
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Keep in mind that it takes nearly an hour to get this point. Zahler's story is layered but could undoubtedly have benefited from some judicious editing. At a bloated 132 minutes, it could easily be at least 30 minutes shorter. But from here on is where fanboys will have a field day.
There are more broken bones and head stompings in this movie than you can really be prepared for. It had the audience at the festival cheering, although two people next to me got up and walked out after the first time an arm was bent backward and snapped in half. And, yes, I said first time. The brutality on display is gleeful and unapologetic and, like it or not, this is destined for cult classic status.
"Brawl in Cell Block 99" will screen again at Fantastic Fest at 8:45 p.m. Sept. 26 and is expected to be released Oct. 13 on VOD. It is unrated, and I can't imagine how much would have to be edited out to earn a proper R-rating from the MPAA.
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