Reeling it in: ‘Brawl’ a disturbing ride

Brawl in Cell Block 99

RLJE Films

2 hours, 12 minutes

“Once bitten, twice shy.” Or maybe, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Either of those phrases are appropriate and should act as a good life lesson. Not for me, though. Despite my better judgement, this week I went back to a director whose debut film left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Craig Zahler’s interesting sounding, but ultimately dreary, dull, and disturbing cannibal western, “Bone Tomahawk,” should have served as a warning for the film I chose to watch this weekend.

“Brawl in Cell Block 99” sounds like a good old-fashioned prison action/drama, and the idea of Vince Vaughn acting against type really appealed to me. In some ways, the movie delivers exactly what it promises. However, it never promises to be enjoyable.

Vaughn is Bradley Thomas, a small-time crook who’s attempt to go straight is derailed by a flagging economy and a baby on the way. Our hero (Bradley – never Brad) is a quiet man of principle but also possessed of a disturbingly brutal pragmatism. To call this character deliberate would be an understatement.

When a drug deal goes wrong and Bradley ends up in prison, his first thought is to quietly serve out his sentence, resigned to his fate. When his pregnant wife is kidnapped, however, things change. Told he must get himself transferred to a separate facility, a maximum security prison reserved for violent offenders, Bradley immediately sets to work convincing his jailers that he must be psychotic. This he does with the same brutally deliberate resolve that he does anything.

From there, he is stuck in a rapidly descending spiral of depredation and violence. It can lead to only one place, no matter how much you wish it wouldn’t.

Despite my respect for Zahler’s obvious talent as a filmmaker and as a director who is able to get interesting and nuanced performances out of actors, I guess I’m confused by the kind of stories he is trying to tell. For the second film in a row, Craig Zahler has chosen a tale right out of the goofy, pulp, grindhouse tradition, but has chosen to tell that tale devoid of any of vicarious thrills or fun that those kind of movies were overflowing with.

It’s not simply as though the director is deciding to take the material seriously, which is what happened when Hollywood finally figured out there was money to be made in superheroes. The scenarios in this film are still pretty pulpy and ultimately silly.

And it’s not like he’s pulling a Tarantino and trying to recreate the ‘70s in every extraneous meticulous detail. There’s no faux film scratching or over-exposures here. The film, like it’s protagonist, feels very deliberate, so it’s impossible for me to simply dismiss the tone as a misfire. Zahlher means to make the audience uncomfortable. He means to remove all the joy from the proceedings. Bradley engages in plenty of prison fights in this film, both with the guards and with psycho inmates, but they are absolutely not fun. Not at all.

Were the movie simply grim, I don’t think I would have reacted the way I did. Vaughn’s performance is brilliantly understated, perhaps the best of his career, and the way he’s written has given me a lot to think about over the last few days. The man’s natural physicality, his height and potential for braun, has never really been exploited like this before.

What confuses me about this movie, however, is the violence. It’s mean and brutal. It’s gory, too, but that’s kind of beside the point. Horror movies can be really fun, despite employing buckets of blood. The violence in this film is unyielding and pitiless, much like Bradley himself. He uses brutality as a tool – as a means to an end and the matter of fact way he dispatches his foes is nauseating.

I don’t need to see the violence in a movie like this played as if I were watching a hard hitting treatise on man’s inhumanity to man. “Saving Private Ryan” or “Hacksaw Ridge” have a purpose for their intense violence and horror. This movie doesn’t seem to, no matter how well it’s produced, acted and written.

This movie is currently out in a few theaters, but is mostly available on streaming. I bought this on iTunes, watched it, and then deleted it from my list. Not because I’m embarrassed, or even because I worry that my kids might try and sneak a viewing, though they would certainly regret it if they did.

No, I deleted it because I didn’t want to look at it. I didn’t want to see the poster and be reminded of the dark, disturbing ride it had taken me on. That’s not the kind of reaction that a movie with a title like “Brawl in Cell Block 99” should elicit.

Grade: C+ (Much about this movie would deserve an A, but the cumulative effect is a D, so I tried to average.)

“Brawl in Cell Block 99” is rated R for gruesome, bloody violence, and pervasive language.

Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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