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Brawl In Cell Block 99: a breakout prison film that pulls no punches

The National talks to Vince Vaughn and director S Craig Zahler about Brawl in Cell Block 99

Vince Vaughn in Brawl in Cell Block 99. Courtesy RLJE Films
Vince Vaughn in Brawl in Cell Block 99. Courtesy RLJE Films

The moment you first see Vince Vaughn in his new movie, Brawl In Cell Block 99, you’ll be shocked. The amiable 47-year-old actor, famed for comic turns in Wedding Crashers and The Dilemma, is shaven-headed, tattooed and his 6-foot, 5-inch frame is toned and muscular. His character, former boxer and recovering alcoholic Bradley Thomas, is not a man to be trifled with, as the first scene of the film demonstrates when he comes home after losing his job to discover his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been unfaithful.

What follows is jaw-dropping as Bradley lashes out – not at his spouse but at his vehicle, tearing it apart with his hands. “I think it speaks a lot to the character that he has a lot of rage in him … [but] he certainly doesn’t want to be violent towards her,” explains Vaughn.

“He doesn’t want to be that person. So he gives himself a beat before he goes into the house. He’s not able to control it as well as he would want, so there’s this side of him that you know is somewhat powerful and somewhat uncontrollable. He’s able to focus in the car in that moment.”

It’s the first of many violent but visceral scenes in writer-director S Craig Zahler’s genre-busting thriller, a film that twists the traditional prison film inside-out. Zahler, who similarly shook up the western with his slow-burning but brutal frontier movie Bone Tomahawk in 2015, calls this early sequence “the defining moment for the character” – when you realise that, despite his tough-guy persona, Bradley cares more than anything for Lauren. “I was really surprised by it and it moved me,” admits Vaughn, who was hooked as soon as he read the scene.

This emotional commitment lays the groundwork for what’s to come, as Lauren gets pregnant and Bradley becomes a successful, savvy drug-runner. “What they want is something that’s admirable – which is love and a child and safety,” says Vaughn, refusing to condemn Bradley’s journey towards criminality. Here is a man fuelled by violence, selling drugs that do harm, but with a “moral compass” that suggests he’s all too aware of the squalid life he’s living.

Yet when a deal goes wrong, and Bradley winds up in jail, the chaos really starts. Inside, he is sent a message by the narcotics kingpin he crossed: kill a fellow inmate or Lauren – now kidnapped – will lose their unborn child in the most unimaginable way possible. The problem is, the intended target isn’t even in the same prison. Forced to go wild and to get transferred to a maximum security unit, Bradley must work his way to the notorious Cell Block 99, “the prison within the prison” that houses the most dangerous and reviled prisoners.

A musician, cinematographer and novelist – whose books include the western A Congregation of Jackals (2010) and the crime story Mean Business on North Ganson Street (2014) – Zahler has already drawn comparisons to Quentin Tarantino for his unique spin on genre. “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I don’t really look at is as genre-mixing or deliberately doing stuff like that,” he says. “It’s just the story I want to tell. My writing process is surprise myself: when I get dark – and my imagination can get pretty damn dark – then I have to do something that I find darker.”

Brawl more than satisfies that mandate, with some barb-wire twisted scenes as Bradley lands in a penitentiary run by Don Johnson’s sadistic warder. With this character undergoing the modern-day equivalent to Dante’s descent into the inferno, Zahler praises his team for seeking out locations – in Staten Island, New York – that matched his hellish vision. “When we were landing in those lower depths, you go, ‘This is everything that was on the page and more.’ Which is the hope; why am I doing this as opposed to writing a novel? And that’s why!”

Aside from the ghoulish atmosphere, it’s the film’s violent sequences that really stun. A former football player and wrestler in high school, Vaughn has never quite got to prove his fight night credentials on screen until now. With the word “brawl” in the title, he was all too aware that combat scenes had to live up to it. “You’re doing live, multiple takes, sometimes with multiple people,” he says, “and everyone is jacked up and we’re getting it in one shot and these are real punches and real things being thrown.”

Despite rehearsing with the cast, Zahler admits that things took on a more charged vibe when he called “action”.

“Everyone is sweating differently and their hearts are going in a different way,” he explains. “It was a great thing for me to watch, but at the same time, I went into the movie knowing I wanted to shoot the fights in this style and also dreading that I wanted to shoot them in this style. I didn’t want to put my actors in a situation where they all get hurt but I knew this [needed to] feel different than contemporary fights in movies.” Bone-crunching simply doesn’t cover it; not since the days of Sam Peckinpah have punch-ups felt so bruising.

“It’s not fight scenes you see in films,” Vaughn says, noting it was essential that he and his co-stars didn’t hold back. “You know there are not going to be cuts [in the takes]…so ultimately you’d have to amp up and almost be in a little dangerous zone, the way we went about it, to sell the veracity of it. You couldn’t just be technical. At a certain point, you’d have to get to a place that was a little bit on the edge, and that’s when mistakes would happen.”

Another aspect that separates Brawl from your run-of-the-mill crime yarn is the soundtrack, written by Zahler and Jeff Herriott. Putting him alongside the legendary John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13), who also scored his films, Zahler’s soul-infused compositions were written while he was in post-production, as a way of reflecting upon Bradley’s character. “It’s supposed to be a theme and sometimes it’s giving another layer to what you’re watching and sometimes it’s a direct counterpoint to what’s going on.”

While there will inevitably be some complaints about the bloodshed – and there are some wince-inducing broken limbs, crunched jaws and flattened faces – it’s hard to argue that Brawl is simply gratuitous violence for the sake of it. Zahler keeps everything tied to Bradley’s mission: he only comes out swinging to save his wife and unborn baby. “I think he’s a very unique voice,” says Vaughn. “It’s exciting to work with someone who I find defiant in what he does … he’s not looking to cater.”

Evidently the experience of making Brawl has sat well with Zahler and Vaughn. Together with Jennifer Carpenter, they have reunited for Zahler’s next film, Dragged Across Concrete. The story of two cops’ journey into the criminal underworld, after their strong-arm tactics are exposed when a video goes viral, it pairs Vaughn with veteran star Mel Gibson, who directed the actor in last year’s Hacksaw Ridge. If Brawl was a prison drama, what’s this? “It’s a warehouse movie,” grins Zahler. Whatever’s inside, it’s sure to be thrilling.

Brawl In Cell Block 99 opens in cinemas on Thursday


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Updated: October 24, 2017 07:43 PM