Vince Vaughn is an actor that consistently surprises me. Mainly because I’ve spent so long seeing him in comedies that I often assume that’s all he can do.
But when taking a hard look at his work, it’s clear that his preference for comedy hasn’t been there for his entire career. It’s easy to forget that the first time most of the world took note of him (in Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park) was in the dramatic role of Nick Van Owen, a pro-dinosaur activist and spy. And throughout the next six years he would have a pretty good mix of characters.
However, come 2003 when he starred in Old School, the well-rounded actor of old seems to have disappeared, and was replaced by a man content to just make people laugh. Out of his next 22 movies, 18 of them ended up being comedies.
But somewhere in the last few years Vaughn seems to have realised that he was pigeonholing himself. As a result 2015’s Unfinished Business was the last comedy Vaughn has done and he’s now actively trying to have his own McConaissance. It hasn’t always worked (*cough* True Detective Season 2 *cough*); but he gave quite a solid performance as a WWII army sergeant in Hacksaw Ridge, one which suggested to me that he would go on to give other decent dramatic performances.
But when it comes to Brawl in Cell Block 99… F**k me, I was wrong.
Because this isn’t just a decent performance. Instead it’s hands down the best of Vaughn’s career.
Having recently been fired from his job due to downsizing, Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is forced to return to a life of drug dealing. Despite the instance of his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), that they’ll make do, Bradley is determined to give his wife the life she deserves.
Eighteen months go by and it seems that Bradley made the right choice, as the couple now live in a far more expensive home with a baby girl on the way. But a drug deal arranged by Bradley’s boss, Gil (Marc Blucas), turns bad and Bradley ends up with a seven year jail sentence.
However, while in prison Bradley receives a visit from a mysterious individual (Udo Kier) claiming that the failed drug deal meant a ton of profit was lost. As repayment the mystery visitor orders Bradley to murder an inmate in a completely different prison. How Bradley does this is entirely up to him. But as “encouragement” he is informed that if he fails, his unborn child will have her limbs severed one by one.
Director S. Craig Zaahler must have had quite the challenge is trying to follow up his first cinematic entry, Bone Tomahawk. But rather than the expanded narrative and additional locations that you might expect after a successful debut, Zaahler instead takes the opposing approach, creating a film that is even more stripped-down and minimal. (Which is saying something since the vast desert expanses of Bone Tomahawk were made on a meagre $1.8 million budget.)
While the title alone does suggest a no-holds fight-fest within the bowels of the American prison system, the final product turns out to be quite different. Hell, the first appearance of an actual prison doesn’t even arrive until an hour into the movie. Instead the first 60 minutes are more in the vein of a slow character drama, focusing on a man’s anger and desperation as he sees the world around him deal him a bad hand over and over again.
As such, though the film was shot in the middle of the 2016 election, you get the impression that Bradley would have been quite Trumpian in his views. A person willing to make a deal with the devil in order to better his place in the world. But it’s a credit to Zaahler’s direction and Vaughn’s acting that Bradley never feels entitled or blames others for his position, helping the audience become invested in his journey as he tries to protect his family.
Speaking of Vaughn’s acting, the man is borderline terrifying here. Reminiscent of Edward’s Norton’s character in American History X; Vaughn uses his huge frame and brutal demeanour to almost visually beat the audience into submission. But as mentioned above, that brutality comes with a heart. The fact that a viewer can believe such violence and gentleness exist within the same soul is testament to how extraordinarily brilliant Vaughn’s performance is.
With such an overwhelming focus on Vaughn’s character, not a huge amount of time is given to develop the others in Bradley’s orbit. But there are still two of note: Carpenter, who, while personifying a fairly traditional damsel in distress, nonetheless shows an impressive strength of character in her desire to protect her unborn child. And the other is Don Johnson as Warden Tuggs. Inhabiting the sadistic person in charge of the titular Cell Block 99, Johnson strikes an excellent balance between verbose comedy and his barbaric administrations.
If you’re expecting something similar to the endless hyperviolent fights of The Raid, then this might not be the film for you. While it’s a somewhat traditional story of a man trying to save his girl, the focused direction of Zaahler and the powerful performance of Vaughn makes Brawl In Cell Block 99 the most engrossing film of either man’s career.