Venice + Toronto 2017: Brawl in Cell Block 99

We begin with Jessica Kiang at the Playlist: “The book that will someday be written detailing the evolution of the cinematic head-stomp will be divided, rather like the most unfortunate victim of Bone Tomahawk, into two halves: before S. Craig Zahler’s Tomahawk follow-up, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and after. And by rights it deserves to be a similar marker in the career of star Vince Vaughn, who plays protagonist Bradley—occasional stompee, but more often stomper of said heads. The smooshed faces, exposed bone and constant one-gruesome-shot-more-than-we-were-expecting brutality of these moments are what will bring all the boys to the prison yard, and they do not disappoint. But it’s Vaughn’s caged-beast charisma (that bounces off the screen long before he is actually caged) and way with a wink or a pithy putdown that keeps us riveted through the substantial sections of the film where heads remain, for the time being, unstomped.”

“If anything, Brawl in Cell Block 99 undersells itself,” writes the Guardian’s Xan Brooks. “I counted five full-on brawls in Block 99, plus a couple more nearby—pretty much all instigated by Bradley. That’s because a wicked drugs kingpin has taken his wife hostage and is threatening to abort his unborn daughter if he doesn’t perform a prison hit. So now Bradley has to devise a cunning plan to bust out of his medium-security jail and into maximum-security Red Leaf prison and from there into Block 99, ‘the prison within the prison’ where the target is held.” And “Zahler seems of a mind that nothing succeeds like excess.”

“The picture really moves into another dimension, one of spectacular violence among other things, when Udo Kier shows up,” write Glenn Kenny in a dispatch to “Those of you who know the German actor know he’s not the kind of guy who generally shows up in a Vince Vaughn movie. It’s weird. On purpose. Like The Bad Batch, which played at Venice last year, this is an American film that’s daring in potentially alienating ways. I was not alienated myself but rather disturbed and delighted, and rather in awe of many of its features, including its vintage soul-music-soundalike song soundtrack co-written by the director and sung by many old-school stars including Butch Tavares.”

“Fight choreographer Drew Leary stages the clashes with brutal efficacy, and Zahler refrains from the usual frenetic editing tricks, resulting in unflinching scenes of explosive violence that are highly physical and invigoratingly vicious,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “Not to mention quite hurty. . . . Without going the martial arts route, Zahler appears to tip his hat to hyperviolent Korean cinema as well as Indonesia's The Raid movies in terms of the number of limbs snapped, though he keeps the actual body count relatively contained.”

Bone Tomahawk was a bold debut,” writes John Bleasdale at CineVue. “Half lyrical John Ford Western, half Ruggero Deodato gore fest. Brawl on Cell Block 99 is a worthy follow up, a dark comic thriller which breaks through genre barriers and A- and B-movie distinctions. It's also gruesomely entertaining.”

Updates, 9/5:Brawl in Cell Block 99 is two hours and twelve minutes long (frankly, it could lose fifteen or twenty minutes), but it’s the rare movie that truly evokes the grindhouse 70s, because it means everything it’s doing,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “It’s exploitation made with vicious sincerity.”

“Yet this is by no means Zahler’s breakout movie,” notes Screen’s Lee Marshall. “That’s more likely to be his upcoming police brutality drama Dragged Across Concrete, starring Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Carpenter. Brawl in Cell Block 99, also starring Carpenter, is firmly in the same fanboy, fright-fest niche as Bone Tomahawk—which is probably why RLJE Films has chosen to release it on VOD in the States on October 13, just a week after its limited theatrical opening. One thing, however, does stand out about Brawl, and it could turn out to have a life of its own: the counter-intuitive soundtrack of 70s-style soul tracks, written by the director and his composer and heavy metal band associate Jeff Herriott, and performed in large part by soul legends The O’Jays.”

“Some may find the imminent threat facing Bradley’s wife and unborn child a little too much to take—it’s too unpleasant to spell out here—but without it, the stakes would not be high enough,” argues Ed Gibbs in Little White Lies. “Zahler’s penchant for this type of material—he cites Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel and Michael Winner among his key influences—serves him well, provided one can handle some seriously toe-curling sequences that veer close to sadism. By its very nature, grindhouse carries with it its own set of caveats, and this brutal and very well-executed film is no exception.”

Updates, 9/15: “Vaughn delivers a rock-solid command lead in S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 that carries the raggedy mantle of Nolte, Kristofferson, Bronson, McQueen, etc.,” writes Steve Macfarlane for Cinema Scope. “It’s a film that makes it easy to remember why Vaughn was a major talent, the emotional conscience of The Lost World: Jurassic Park and heir apparent to guys like Chevy Chase or Bill Murray in Wedding Crashers.” Still, Brawl “lacks the humane despair of Jules Dassin’s Brute Force or Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary, and if I’m implicating too many proper nouns here, blame Zahler: for all the success of this execution, Brawl can’t help but resemble too many older and better movies.”

“Zahler borrows knowingly and liberally from key cinematic forebears,” grants Neil Young, writing for Sight & Sound, “but with a dark humor 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.”

For Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov,Brawl’s “delight in its face-crushing makes any over-serious considerations pretty unproductive-seeming: the unrepentantly pulpy throw-downs, in keeping with the unpretentious promise of its title, do not particularly interested in the demographic politics of those involved. As with Tomahawk, the film looks absolutely hideous: super-digital, with lots of interiors bathed in sick greens and grays. Please get this man a great color correction package for his next feature.”

IndieWire’s Eric Kohn suggests that “the pure gimmick of Brawl in Cell Block 99 is Vaughn himself, an absurd special effect of a human being who seems to be jockey for a form of rough-hewn action stardom nobody could have predicted for him.”

It’s “Vaughn's crisp dialogue commitment, precision martial arts moves (executed in long don’t-look-away takes) and Terminator level endurance for suffering, that will force many to look at the actor with fresh eyes,” agrees Kurt Halfyard at ScreenAnarchy.

Update, 9/16: “A grindhouse baroquist worthy of the late, great Tobe Hooper,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook, “Zahler excels at purple tough-guy prose (‘Gimme a reason to turn your face into a cocktail’), scabrous sketching (Don Johnson and Udo Kier both contribute loathsome vividness), oddball frames charged with Pedro Costa-type stillness, and a genre lunacy that he has to courage to push to its extremes. May his career be a bloody long one.”

Update, 9/17: “Zahler’s lack of visual prowess comes in handy when he stages fights between Bradley and his opponents in jail, as he stands back and lets them unfold in long takes that look flat,” writes C. J. Prince at the Film Stage. “The simplicity of the set-up works here because it emphasizes the bluntness of the action, with Bradley treating bones like twigs and faces like mops. What Zahler’s direction shows is an intelligence with his approach to genre, working within limitations (be they creative or budgetary) to deliver a throwback to ‘70s exploitation films . . . And it’s the brains behind the brawn that makes Brawl in Cell Block 99 one of the year’s highlights in the action genre.”

Updates, 10/7:Rolling Stone’s David Fear suggests that “grindhouse devotees could add a half-star to the review for the way the film wears its sadism so blatantly on its blood-stained sleeve, or deduct a half-star for the fact that any such joint clocking in at 132 minutes is questionable. The story takes its sweet time so you get to know and invest in its players, but you wouldn’t really call Brawl’s broad narrative sketches ‘character development’ any more than you’d call its digs at America’s haves and have-nots ‘class commentary.’ Zahler’s film just wants to shock you, smack you around and shake you up, and once its star starts bringing the pain, it succeeds with honors. It’s excessive, but that’s the point.”

For Jeannette Catsoulis in the New York Times, “this painstakingly paced thriller displays an intensity of purpose that makes it impossible to dismiss as well-executed trash.” And “it’s Mr. Vaughn, with his loose-hipped gait and simmering menace, who brings the movie home. Wrapped in a swaggering soundtrack of ’70s-style soul (composed by Mr. Zahler and Jeff Herriott, and performed by the likes of Butch Tavares and the O’Jays), he gives Bradley a forlorn determination. There is something so poignant in the performance that it lifts this uncompromisingly savage picture above and beyond its vicious beat-downs.”

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a grade-A piece of meathead cinema,” writes Simon Abrams at, “the kind of exploitation movie whose deepest thoughts are Am I more animal than human? and How far is a man willing to go to protect his loved ones? These would be insufferably trite themes if Zahler wasn’t so good at drawing viewers in with sensationally staged violence and carefully observed details: the long shadows cast by billiard balls, the rustle of curtains, the eerie stillness of a door before it's bashed in, the pauses Bradley takes between beatings.”

“I’m always trying to come up with something that surprises myself,” Zahler tells Nick Schager at the Daily Beast. “And whether that’s a moment of violence, or a character moment, or especially when it’s a moment of humor, it’s rooted in being something beyond what’s expected.”

Update, 10/9:Christopher Inoa talks with Zahler for the Film Stage.

Updates, 10/22:Adam Woodward talks with Zahler for Little White Lies, while the Austin Chronicle’s Richard Whittaker meets Zahler, Vaughn, and Kier.

Venice andToronto 2017 indexes.For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

You have no items in your shopping cart