Over the years, I’ve consumed my share of vintage grindhouse flicks (revenge, car chase, blaxploitation, cannibal, you name it), but I confess that I never thought much about them until Quentin Tarantino came along and began to talk them up as if they were the second coming of cinema. Curious, I took a grindhouse-movie plunge to try to find out what it was that turned the scurrilous trash of the ’70s into Quentin’s cinematic sanctuary. I think I finally saw the light. Yes, the movies had sleaze, grit, wild violence, tawdry sex, an off-the-books aura of semi-scandalous transgression (all things I approve of). But what I now also saw is that they had a very perverse sort of conviction. The characters didn’t just commit sordid, reckless, and ugly acts; it’s as if the low budgets and air of extremity scraped away everything but their ability to mean it. You could sum up hundreds of those films in one grindhouse ad slogan: “He Knew How to Mean…Getting Mean.”
That’s certainly true of Bradley Thomas, the strapping hooligan badass played by Vince Vaughn, with a cross tattooed on the back of his shaved skull, in “Brawl in Cell Block 99.” The movie, an ultra-violent tale of rage, salvation, and limbs broken at extreme angles, is about a twisted but honorable man who gets placed in the ninth circle of incarcerated hell. Once there, he has to resort to the most extreme acts he can imagine, all to protect his wife and unborn daughter. It sounds like the sort of pulp that would now go straight to DVD or VOD — and, in fact, that’s more or less what happened to “Bone Tomahawk” (2015), the critically lauded first feature by the same writer-director, S. Craig Zahler.
Yet there’s a reason “Brawl in Cell Block 99” is playing at the Venice Film Festival. I saw it at a midnight show, where an audience of Euro swells in tuxedoes and five-inch heels gave the movie, and its star, a standing ovation. They were applauding the film’s — and Vaughn’s — conviction, as well as the vise-like grip of its how-dark-is-this-gonna-get? suspense. “Brawl in Cell Block 99” is 2 hours and 12 minutes long (frankly, it could lose 15 or 20 minutes), but it’s the rare movie that truly evokes the grindhouse ’70s, because it means everything it’s doing. It’s exploitation made with vicious sincerity.
The movie takes off from our desperate economic moment. Bradley, who looks fearsome enough to be a monster, is trying to walk the straight and narrow. He’s a recovering alcoholic, with a job at an auto shop and a wife he’s trying to reconnect with. But when he gets laid off, there’s nothing left for him, so he goes back to running drug packages for Gil (Marc Blucas), his old scummy power-tripping dealer boss. Bradley and Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) heal their relationship, and she gets pregnant; with the money he’s making, they move to a nicer place. But then Gil orders him to make a run with a crew of Mexican smugglers, and Bradley can smell how untrustworthy they are.
For too long, Vince Vaughn has been a jittery actor who favors a comical mode of word salad, but in “Brawl in Cell Block 99” he’s calm and still, with a forlorn implosiveness, and I think it’s because the shaved dome liberates him. I have no idea what’s been going on with Vaughn’s hair for the last 10 years, but frankly, he has seemed more and more uptight about the image he’s projecting, and in “Brawl” it’s as if he’d stripped away that anxiety and said, “It’s me. In the raw. Deal with it.” Vaughn’s performance echoes the down-and-dirty transformation undergone by John Travolta and Bruce Willis in “Pulp Fiction,” Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” and Matthew McConaughey in “Magic Mike” — actors who got consumed by the system, and went through the motions long enough to become feel-good shadows of themselves, only to draw the line and say, “Enough!”
Vaughn, of course, tried for the beginnings of a kind of Re-Vaughnaissance when he played the villain in the second season of “True Detective” (and he was quite good), followed by his role as the drill sergeant in “Hacksaw Ridge.” But here he does what those other actors did by tapping something primal: a new image that seems to emerge from a scalded elemental reality. As Bradley, he’s like a big violent sad-eyed baby, and he connects to the audience in the direct emotional way that he has done only rarely since “Swingers.”
Many filmmakers have been influenced by the gritty neon glow of Michael Mann’s “Thief,” but Zahler may be the first to shoot images that have that look in endless long static-stare medium shots, with a wide-angle lens and no cuts. “Brawl in Cell Block 99” is a night-bloom crime film that feels like it was made by a shoestring Kubrick. The unbroken-take mode is Zahler’s way of surveying his characters, almost spying on them. When the drug run is scattered by the police, the way Bradley ends up in prison for five years is, frankly, a little contrived (you have to believe that he’s so primitively noble that he’d screw himself over in order to screw over his bosses). But you go with it, because Zahler has done the tougher work of investing us in Bradley’s crossroads moment. And when he gets to prison, the movie takes off.
A henchman, played by the creepy affectless Udo Kier (who also shows up in “Downsizing” — at 72, this suave cult goblin is clearly having a moment), talks to Bradley through the Plexiglass and tells him that he now owes the Mexican smugglers millions of dollars, and that he can pay the debt by killing a certain prisoner in cell-block 99 of Red Leaf, a nearby maximum-security prison. So Bradley has to cause enough damage to get transferred there. If he doesn’t, Kier outlines a threat so hideous it’s terrifying. You would never hear this sort of thing in, say, an “Expendables” movie, but it’s that willingness to reach beyond the acceptable that infuses “Brawl in Cell Block 99” with a murderous faith.
Vaughn’s stoic ruthlessless does too. His first act of violence is to break a guard’s arm so that it no longer resembles an arm. He wins his ticket to Red Leaf, and fast, only to learn that the place is a series of dank interlocking dungeons. The warden, played with cigarillo-savoring juice by Don Johnson, runs the place on a behavior-mod system of rewards and punishments, starting with the disgusting cell that Bradley is placed in. But he will endure whatever is necessary. The movie takes its time, letting us savor the fetid horror of prison life, and maybe that’s why it’s such a release when Vaughn springs into action: He’s as tall and strong as Tom Noonan’s serial killer in “Manhunter,” as quick and merciless as Woody Harrelson in the prison climax of “Natural Born Killers.” He gouges eyeballs (which we’ve seen before), but he also smashes heads and faces into the ground like melons (which we haven’t). And it’s all because he cares!
It’s got to be one of the supreme entertainment ironies of our time that a movie like “Brawl in Cell Block 99” is now a kind of “art film.” At a festival, it represents the decadence of the market meets the aspirations of a gutbucket auteur meets the prestige of critical approval. In the ’70s, a movie like this one might have made a lot of money, but it would have stayed underground (in Times Square, in drive-ins), and that’s where it felt at home. Today, it might have a life on DVD or VOD (the new underground), but thanks to Vince Vaughn having the moxie to reinvent himself, there’s a chance it could slip into the awards mix. Insane? Maybe so. But that’s what can happen when you mean it.