I’m struggling fully getting on board with the macho genre throwbacks of S. Craig Zahler. I did enjoy his instantly infamous cannibal gross-out Bone Tomahawk, despite my general distaste for Westerns and the feeling that its participation in “Native savage” tropes is a little too easily excused. I guess on some level I also enjoyed his follow-up to that attention-grabbing debut, the violent prison film Brawl in Cell Block 99. The overdose of testosterone running through Zahler’s films is wearing me down, though, a feeling that’s only compounded by his work’s slow-to-act, self-serious tone that “elevates” schlocky concepts with extended runtimes & deliberately over-written dialogue. Zahler is very good at what he does: revitalizing long-dormant “trash” genres with a fresh sense of meticulous craft & feel-it-in-your-bones brutality. There’s just a large part of me that misses the versions of these pictures that were quick, goofy, and less steeped in unexamined machismo.
I’m usually not a fan of his “lovable asshole”/Tough Guy with a Heart of Coal routine, but Vince Vaughn is perfectly cast here as a broken macho man on the wrong side of the law (and economic hardship). Recently laid off and facing the early signs of a crumbling marriage, his overly muscled protagonist becomes a reluctant drug-runner for some sneering, racial & homophobic slur-slinging Bad Guys, a career path that obviously lands him in jail. Once inside the pen, eternally typecast creep Udo Kier threatens the safety of his pregnant wife unless he assassinates a man held at the Maximum Security population of Cell Block 99, a prison within the prison. Motivated by this wicked act of blackmail, our anti-hero descends into the lower levels of the prison, as if clearing obstacles in a video game, by violently attacking/physically dismantling the guards & fellow prisoners. He eventually finds his target, but also engineers a spectacular act of revenge on his blackmailers in the process, leaving many destroyed bodies of (literally & figuratively) faceless baddies in his wake.
This plot feels just as akin to an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris cheapie from the 1980s (especially the part about the wife being held ransom as blackmail) as it does to the grindhouse prison movies Brawl in Cell Block 99 lovingly pays tribute to. The setup to the violent spectacle of the payoff takes much longer to develop, however, attempting to build a genuine emotional response out of its narrative those films never achieved. I’m not convinced Zahler achieved it either. I was on board for the film’s scraped-against-concrete, Saw-level torture device violence. However, outside being impressed by a stray turn of phrase, I was left completely cold by the emotional core of the story it told. This detachment was only made worse by its ugly, high-contrast digital photography and even uglier commitment to brute force masculinity. It’s not like the movie isn’t critical of Vaughn’s brutal machismo either. Early on, unchecked masculine rage is made to be monstrously grotesque, especially as he dismantles an entire car by hand out of romantic anger and benevolently lords over his tiny, shrinking domain. It only gets worse as he applies that same destructive masculine anger to human bodies, something the movie is well aware of. I just found the experience of dwelling in that headspace for over two hours to be exhausting & ultimately alienating, a similar feeling I had with Zahler’s previous film. Not everyone will have that experience, of course. Much like Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a technically well-made picture and your patience for diving into the depths of destructive masculinity will determine much of your experience with it.