Ready, player one? Writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to stomach-churning horror-western Bone Tomahawk (2015) deploys the ultra-violence and multilevel structure of video games to revitalise the venerable but semi-moribund prison picture sub-genre. Indeed, as Vince Vaughn’s towering, shaven-headed, imposingly bulky – but essentially decent – protagonist Bradley Thomas clumps through escalating levels of mayhem, he’s sometimes only marginally more lifelike than the the pixelated homunculi fractiously populating such electronic diversions as ValuSoft’s Prison Tycoon (2005).
Director S. Craig Zahler
Lauren Thomas Jennifer Carpenter
Bradley Thomas Vince Vaughn
Warden Tuggs Don Johnson
Placid Man Udo Kier
Eschewing the fast cutting and jittery visuals in vogue among Hollywood action-directors, Zahler and cinematographer Benji Bakshi instead prefer to present their numerous instances of bone-crunching, skull-stomping action via fixed-camera, widescreen tableaux – all the better to showcase the wince-inducing verisimilitude of fight-arranger Drew Leary’s lethal choreography.
Audiences lured by the catchpenny title must, however, wait for the graphic bloodshed proper to begin. Thomas doesn’t even enter clink until 50 minutes, following his ill-advised participation in a messily abortive drug-deal. He commences stir in a middlingly easy-going institution – where the deadliest hazard is the prissily pedantic politess of the new-intake receiver (Fred Melamed).
The fact that Thomas’s first visitor is played by Udo Kier – as a character identified in the credits as “The Placid Man” – is the first harbinger of the sadistic guignol which awaits. Placid Udo tasks Thomas with offing an inmate at another jail of significantly higher security, promising grotesque consequences for his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) and unborn child if Thomas refuses.
Our taciturn hero must thus get himself transferred to the quasi-fascistic regime at Red Leaf penitentiary, a warren of medieval dungeons run by Warden Tuggs – Don Johnson, 5’9” or so in his stocking feet – who delights in cutting the 6’5” Thomas down to size. Tuggs’s arsenal includes using such torturous methods as the stun belt, a controversial device – as developed by Stun Tech Incorporated of Cleveland, Ohio – which has in real life been (shockingly) used by 16 US states.
John Cleese (also 6’5”) once remarked that Fawlty Towers was fundamentally about height and its downfall, and Vaughn has clearly been cast primarily for his stature rather than his acting chops (established beyond doubt in the unfairly-maligned True Detective S2). As the unflappable, pain-impervious Thomas, he clunks around with the dread-inducing lurch of Boris Karloff circa 1931: the year of both James Whale’s Frankenstein and Howard Hawks’s big-house classic The Criminal Code.
Hawks, of course, seldom wasted a second of screen time: at 97 minutes, The Criminal Code remains one of the shorter examples of the form. For while ‘genre’ often connotes brisk economy, the prison picture – which by its nature revolves around people ‘doing time’ – has often enjoyed unusual license to sprawl: Papillon (1973) and A Prophet (2009) run more than two-and-a-half hours, The Green Mile (1999) a punishing 189 minutes.
In Brawl in Cell Block 99, which occupies its 132 minutes with leisurely aplomb, Zahler borrows knowingly and liberally from key cinematic forebears, but with a dark humour and bloodthirsty chutzpah all of his own. A novelist and heavy-metal musician in addition to his filmmaking exploits, renaissance-man Zahler wrote the film’s score with Jeff Herriott, including old-school soul numbers performed by legendary Ohio outfit the O’Jays – a rather happier export of the Buckeye State.
Correction (13 September 2017): this review originally credited the film’s cinematography to Greg D’Auria rather than Benji Bakshi. This has now been amended.