The opening act makes in S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 – makes for compelling viewing. We’re introduced to Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) and gather he’s a man who harbours much aggression, but is in no way inclined to release it. A gentle giant of sorts, any such comfortability we claim is spiked persistently with a sense of foreboding doom – for we know he’s going to end up in prison, we just don’t know how.
It’s been a tough time for the former boxer; laid off from his work, and discovers that same day his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been having an affair. Showing a remarkable amount of restraint (ignoring the car he smashes to pieces with his bare hands) – he decides to give Lauren a second chance, and the pair discover they’re expecting a child. To help make money and provide for his family, Bradley becomes a drug runner, only to get caught and sentenced to prison for seven years.
Though refusing to talk (he is a man of principle, after all), his arrest still cost his employer millions of dollars – and they want him to make amends, from within prison. Setting him a target they want assassinated – the potential victim is locked away in a special block for the most nefarious, psychotic of prisoners. So Bradley has to convince those around him, such as Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson), that’s he’s deserving of a cell in Block 99.
The character of Bradley is such an absorbing protagonist that is so immensely easy to get behind. He’s flawed, naturally, and he’s human – he loses a real ounce of his dignity when Lauren cheats on him, but he remains faithful and understanding – and actually despite this misdemeanour, it makes their romance all the more real for he’s giving her a second chance; that’s real love, and not one we tend to see very often in Hollywood.
It’s a role brought to life in emphatic fashion by Vaughn too, and he does a fine job with such a complex, nuanced character that is so internalised, showing so much restraint. We know there’s anger within him, but watch on as he battles his own demons to prevent it being released. The physicality of the role is well-judged too, for Vaughn – who is a tall guy – is made a victim at times due to his size, as big guys can be identified on a prison ward and be intimidated, as smaller guys vie to prove their worth and masculinity by picking on someone double their size. But with it he’s also so vulnerable, he moves at a slow pace, he has bandages on his wrists and blood seeping slowly out of his shoes – he’s like an elephant being targeted by a pack of wolves, fending them off tirelessly.
Though it’s fair to say this film goes to darker places than you’d see on a David Attenborough show, for this is brutal, unrelenting cinema, that is savage in its depiction of violence. But it’s been shot in such a beautiful way, the use of colour is striking, it’s stylistic and in turn this allows Zahler a licence of sorts to be more graphic. Similar to the likes of Drive or Sin City – when you present your film in an overtly cinematic way it detracts from the notion of realism and just takes the sting off some of the violence. Though that being said, after watching this excellent piece of cinema, you’ll never watch Wedding Crashers in the same way again.