Kevin: Well CJ and I have certainly had an embarrassment of riches at the theater lately. We just got done with our review of the modern day classic “Geostorm,” but we certainly can’t forget about the awesomeness of Vince Vaughn’s “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, who only after two movies has quietly turned into one of the most interesting and unique voices working in film today.
As with “Brawl,” CJ and I were previously fortunate enough to catch his debut film – the Kurt Russell-starring cannibal western “Bone Tomahawk” – on the big screen back in 2015, and it immediately became one of our favorite films of that year due to the fact that it somehow successfully combines elements from both Joel and Ethan Coen’s “True Grit” AND Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes.” Based on Zahler’s output so far, he apparently is cornering the genre of adult dramas that take their time establishing characters and place, before making you go “Holy shit! What is happening? This is awesome!” in the last half hour.
Either way, “Brawl” begins with Vaughn’s character getting fired from his job at an auto parts shop. Now any other movie would have him beat the shit out of his boss to show how fearsome he is. But here we just see him accept it and get his stuff from his locker and move on, yet in retrospect this long and seemingly unnecessary sequence tells us everything we need to know about his character, because even though “nothing happens,” everyone around him is obviously scared shitless and walking on eggshells, and as we later find out they are right to do so.
Then he comes home early to find out his wife is cheating on him, and I don’t mean the usual stupid movie thing of walking in while some dude is practicing the Kama Sutra on her. He just sees her in their car in a driveway applying makeup to a hickey on her neck, but once again the subtext is clear. Then after confronting her he destroys her car, and again not in an absurd Hollywood way like The Rock ripping a car door off in “San Andreas” like it was just a wrapper on his protein powder. He just starts pounding on the driver’s side window until it breaks, and then he pulls the hood off, and then he smashes in one of the headlights, taking a long time to weirdly reach in and pull the wiring out afterward. Once again it’s kind of awesome yet feels totally real, and it tells you a lot about him without needing another character info-dump his entire backstory.
Now looking at Zahler’s upcoming projects, his next film apparently stars Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson as two amoral corrupt cops in “Dragged Across Concrete.” So CJ after seeing “Bone Tomahawk” and “Brawl,” do we both agree that this movie is already on our Must See List for 2018?
CJ: Not only is it on the list, but I have not been so excited for a movie since “Geostorm,” so I am glad I have something to take its place on my list (other than the upcoming Bumblebee spin-off of course).
Now there’s a bigger lesson in how Vaughn handles his firing in that opening scene, because not only does he accept it, he is super polite about it. Unlike everyone else in America, Vaughn’s character clearly realizes he would like to get another job quickly, and telling your last employer to go fuck themselves and breaking their legs is not the best way to get a solid recommendation. Granted, his next job was as a drug courier, but I bet it helped that when the drug kingpin called his references, they said nice things!
Also did you notice that when he started punching through glass, he actually bled? I hate to say this, but FINALLY! I can’t tell you how many times people punch through glass and all is well (see “Action Jackson” for an example of this; actually just see “Action Jackson” because it is awesome).
I also weirdly enjoyed how he then walked back into the house and actually had an adult conversation with his wife about everything that was going on between them, before finding some common ground that they could build on to improve their relationship. Maybe Vince Vaughn should run for office instead of Kid Rock.
I will say though, how did his wife not notice his car pull up? I feel like if I was in my driveway, I’d notice any car, let alone my husband’s, pull up like 10 feet away from me. He may have gotten home early, but that’s on her.
Kevin: Now while most people will likely watch “Brawl” on iTunes or various Video-on-Demand services where currently available, after seeing both it and “Bone Tomahawk” on the big screen I’ll say that Zahler really makes movies that should be seen in a theater, and not because they have a lot of special effects and shit. Instead they have a lot of scenes of people talking and doing things that don’t exactly further the plot, but after being forced to sit watch this “boring stuff” that most people would fast forward through on Netflix, you are totally invested in what happens to his characters. That’s why when he gets to “the good stuff” in the third act, it’s even more awesome and thrilling.
On that note CJ, apparently there are people who think “Bone Tomahawk” is boring or too slow. Are they stupid, or would they think differently if they got to see it in a theater like we did? Also, do we not agree that if Quentin Tarantino had made “Bone Tomahawk,” it’s colorful and witty dialogue would have won him a Best Screenplay Oscar, while Richard Jenkins would have at least been nominated for Best Supporting Actor?
Also even though he’s made a quiet comeback in the last few years, Don Johnson should still be in more movies, because when he shows up in “Brawl” as a sadistic prison warden we all kind of laugh a little in a good way, because we agree that Don Johnson rules and he’ll be fun to watch no matter who he is playing.
Before I go further, let’s appreciate that “Brawl” is a very adult, drawn out, and challenging character study in which one of the bad guys says the phrase “Commence the abortionist.”
CJ: “Commence the Abortionist” is the name of my indie alt-rock band from Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Also I thoroughly enjoyed how, after they canceled the abortion, the abortionist was genuinely bummed out. He may be sick and twisted, but if nothing else it’s good in this day and age to see somehow who genuinely loves his job and gives it his all.
I’ll say that Zahler has pretty much perfected the slow burn. Even though it may get close to testing your patience at time, upon reflection everything that happens in the first two-thirds of “Brawl” has its place, and the film is a richer experience because of that. It was quite interesting to watch Vaughn’s character be all about his family from minute one to the end, but never break down, rat on his associates, or sell his soul. He maintains his own code, however weird it is, and does so without complaint. As Tony Soprano would say, he was the strong silent type.
And to everyone who dislikes “Bone Tomahawk,” I hate to call you stupid, but I also hate a lot of things in life that just happen to be true.
Kevin: Well let’s end as the movie does, with the long-awaited brawl in cell block 99. Now some may consider this a spoiler, while the more squeamish among you should consider it a warning, but Vince has a very particular fighting style in this film, which is to knock someone to the ground and then use his size 13 shoes to stomp their fucking face into the concrete (how it’s taken this long for an action film to exploit the fact that Vaughn is a 6-foot-5 giant is insane).
Speaking of insane, there is a particular death scene in “Bone Tomahawk” that is so horrific that anyone who has seen the film already knows what I am referring to. Well I’ll just say that Zahler somehow matches or even tops it with what Vince does to one of the prisoners who gets in his way at the end. Honestly just the crunching and squishing sound effects we hear would be gruesome enough, but then when we actually see the result, holy shit! You know those commercials for bad horror movies where they show some night-vision footage of the audience all freaking out and covering their mouths in both horror and exhilaration? Well that was CJ and myself times a thousand, and I have a feeling that video of us watching the brawl in “Brawl on Cell Block 99” would be just as entertaining as the film.
CJ: I could not agree more. What’s weird is how what is happening in “Bone Tomahawk” is insanely nightmarish, while “Brawl” is much more muted, and yet the sound effects in the latter catapult it into another level. Another great thing about the final brawl is that Vaughn doesn’t become some superhero (although like Bruce Willis in “Unbreakable,” he does take a lot of hits that seem to barely affect him), but instead just utilizes a pure brute force fighting style that takes advantage of him being 12 feet tall.
Kevin: We won’t say anything more because “Brawl” is best enjoyed without knowing too much going in, but we will say that while it may seem like slow going for a while, if you stick with it you will be richly rewarded. Hopefully after more filmmakers see it Vince will get further opportunities to show off his inner badass, but at least we are guaranteed another future Vaughn-Zahler classic with “Dragged Across Concrete.” And considering that Vaughn and a concrete floor combine for “Brawl’s” most memorably gruesome moment, I am already giddy with anticipation.
Post Script: Speaking of Don Johnson, if you enjoyed “Brawl” you may like another slow burn thriller called “Cold in July” from 2014, featuring Michael C. Hall as a nondescript Texas man who kills a home invader, and the late Sam Shephard as the dead man’s scary criminal father who comes looking for answers. Based on that synopsis you may think you know where the story is going, but the film takes a number of surprising turns, with Johnson popping up to offer some needed comic relief as a good ol’ boy Houston private eye named Jim Bob. Johnson is so much fun it’s hard not to imagine he might have gotten some award-season recognition if the movie had been more high profile, but either way let’s appreciate that, as Tough Guy Digest noted in our “Miami Vice” Sing Off post, the former Sonny Crockett is a blast whether in front of a camera or behind a microphone:
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