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London Film Festival Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99 – “Doesn’t live up to its promise”

The title gives you an idea of what you’re going to get, hearkening back to films like Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is getting lots of attention from Vince Vaughn’s extreme career makeover in it (something Vaughn tried a couple of years earlier with his role in the complete disaster that was Season 2 of True Detective). Vaughn had done dramatic roles earlier in his career, but he became known mostly as a comedic actor from the early 2000s on, making the shift seen in this film not so shocking.

Vaughn plays a former boxer who is now a drug runner. When a deal goes horribly wrong, he ends up in prison and is told he has to kill someone. This requires acting so violently that he will be moved to a maximum security facility to gain access to the target. Vaughn is an ex-alcoholic with a cheating wife, all of which plays a part in the plot. He hasretaineds some of the sense of menace which made him one of the better aspects of Season 2 of True Detective. Vaughn’a height which is around the 6 foot 5 inches mark adds to his physicality he brings to the role and the shaven head with a large tattoo on the back of his head certainly helps as well.

The film looks terrible, basically like a VOD film especially during the first half. That is surprising, as director S. Craig Zahler has written a number of novels and screenplays, and directed Bone Tomahawk, an excellent mishmash of the Western and horror film. That left me eagerly awaiting his next film. Zahler gets the world of these kinds of films really well, but this effort shares Bone Tomahawk’s main flaw: at over two hours, it is much too long. The first hour is pretty unbearably awful: Jennifer Carpenter plays Vaughn’s wife, and she gives an abysmal performance. There are some fun small roles by actors like Don Johnson, who is the main villain of the piece and puts in a good bit of scene-chewing as the evil warden. Udo Kier, one of my favourite character actors, is somewhat wasted.

The last 40 minutes are completely great, and that’s where the film starts to look decent with the hellish interior of the prison. Unfortunately, it never quite gels, and that’s a shame because of the talented people involved. I suspect it was done too quickly as the director had another film in production at the same time. What it needed was a better edit: it would have worked at the 100-minute limit at most, would probably be better at a leaner 80 or 90-minute mark. The editor was the assistant editor on several of Quentin Tarantino’s movies. While I personally think Tarantino’s films work at their longer length, a straight-forward old school throwback ’70s thriller like this needs to keep up a tight momentum to hold the viewer.

There are some great scenes of nasty violence, but Brawl in Cell Block 99 just doesn’t live up to its promise. That said I am sure Zahler will produce better work in the future.

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