Brawl in Cell Block 99


Vince Vaughn is reborn as a badass.

(2017) Crime (RLJE) Vince Vaughn, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Jennifer Carpenter, Dion Mucciacito, Marc Blucas, Fred Melamed, Clark Johnson, Franco Gonzalez, Victor Almanzar, Keren Dukes, Rob Morgan, Mustafa Shakir, Brian Wiles, Adrian Matilla, Tuffy Questell, Philip Ettinger, Jay Hieron, Phillip Dutton, Larry Mitchell, Dan Amboyer, Pooja Kumar, Devon Windsor. Directed by S. Craig Zahler

 

The grindhouse movies of the 70s were an art-form unto themselves. Quentin Tarantino is famously influenced by them as is director S. Craig Zahler who impressed with the bloody Western Bone Tomahawk. But whereas Tarantino seems content to evoke them and illustrate his encyclopedic knowledge of them, Zahler is more interested in using them as a building block to create more contemporary fare.

Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) is a big man. He drives a tow truck for an auto wrecker yard but with times being what they are, he is laid off. Coming home, he discovers his wife Lauren (Carpenter) in bed with another man. An ex-boxer like Bradley might be forgiven if he used his pugilistic skills to create a whole new face for his wife and lover but instead, he utilizes his temper in a more constructive manner and after his moment is passed, begins to talk calmly and rationally to Lauren about reconciliation.

Jobs are hard to come by so Bradley goes back to one he had before going the straight and narrow; as a drug courier to old friend Gil (Blucas). The work is lucrative and Bradley is soon able to afford a much nicer house for his wife who is now pregnant with their daughter. Bradley is content with the way things have gone. However, when Gil takes on a partnership with a Mexican cartel, Bradley is troubled; he doesn’t trust the Mexican thugs at all and his suspicions are soon borne out. A shoot-out with the cops ensues and Bradley ends up taking the fall for his boss and gets seven years in prison for his troubles.

But his troubles are far from over. Bradley gets a visit from a slimy lawyer (Kier) who informs him that the cartel boss has taken his wife hostage. As far as the cartel is concerned, Bradley cost them millions of dollars and they expect repayment. His wife will be released unharmed if Bradley performs a simple task for them; if not, they will abort the baby.

The “simple task” turns out to be very complicated – Bradley must kill an inmate of Cell Block 99. The trouble is, Cell Block 99 is in Red Leaf Maximum Security prison; Bradley is in a medium security jail. In order to get himself transferred to Red Leaf, he’ll have to call on his inner badass and once at Red Leaf with its cigarillo-smoking warden (Johnson), he must get himself transferred to Cell Block 99 which is where the most violent offenders are sent. Time is ticking down on his wife and unborn child and Bradley must find a way to get the job done – until he discovers that the job isn’t at all what he thought it was.

This movie is hyper-violent with a ton of gore. Heads get stomped like melons; arms are broken into shapes that arms were never meant to take. Faces are peeled off like orange peels and people are shot every which way. If those sorts of things bother you, stop reading and find a different movie to watch because clearly this movie isn’t for you.

It certainly is for me though and one of the biggest reasons why is Vaughn. He’s made a career out of fast-talking wiseacre comedy characters who have a bit of the con man in them but this role is light years away from that. Bradley is soft-spoken but prone to fits of intense and shocking violence. With a shaved head and a Gothic cross tattooed to the back of his skull, he looks like the kind of trouble that most people walk across the street to avoid. Vaughn fills the roll with quiet menace and in the process reminds us that he began his career playing a variety of roles until comedy derailed his versatility for a time. Hopefully this will lead for a wider variety of roles for the actor who has proven he can handle just about anything.

Johnson also does a fine job in his role as the serpentine warden who is neither corrupt nor evil; he’s just doing a brutal job brutally. Putting a stun harness on the prisoners is simply the easiest way to control them; he’s not torturing them so much as educating them, at least from his point of view. It’s a great role for Johnson and hopefully will bring him some just-as-juicy big screen roles from here on out.

The length of the film is a problem. At just a hair over two hours, the pacing of the first hour is a bit too leisurely to sustain itself and you might find yourself looking for something else to do but try to hang in there; once the movie gets going, it stays going. The problem is that by the time that happens, the last half hour begins to really wear on the viewer. Some of the build-up should have been more judiciously edited. It felt very much like we were watching a director’s extended cut rather than the final theatrical version.

Still in all this is the kind of entertainment that B-movie fans are going to love. These types of movies have become more in vogue particularly with the support of Tarantino who has essentially resurrected the genre in terms of respectability – grindhouse type movies have never really gone away, after all. However films like this one have not only kept the genre running but have given it true vigor and made it a viable artistic concern as well.

REASONS TO GO: Vaughn is at his very best here. The gore effects are pretty impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace is slow moving, particularly during the first hour. You begin to feel the movie’s more than two hour length during the last half hour.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as a goodly amount of violence, some of it graphic and/or gory. There are also some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vaughn put on 15 pounds of muscle in preparation for filming and also did extensive boxing training over the two months prior to cameras rolling; he claimed that his boxing training made the fight choreography much easier to learn.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starred Up
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Heaven Without People

Advertisements

A Good Day to Die Hard


Why some guys will go see A Good Day to Die Hard.

Why some guys will go see A Good Day to Die Hard.

(2013) Action (20th Century Fox) Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Yulia Snigir, Cole Hauser, Amaury Nolasco, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Anne Vyalitsyna, Rasha Bukvic, Melissa Tang, Catherine Kresge, Sergei Kolesnikov, April Grace. Directed by John Moore

One of the most successful action franchises of all time is the Die Hard series. Each one pits New York cop John McClane (Willis) against a parade of really nasty bad guys who over the years have included Alan Rickman, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Olyphant and William Sadler.

The fifth in the franchise isn’t located in the States. In fact, the action takes place all the way East in Russia (Moscow) and the Ukraine. McClane goes over to the former Evil Empire to see his estranged son Jack (Courtney) who is going on trial there for unknown charges. McClane feels a lot of guilt for the chilly relationship he has with Jack and not only does he want to see what he can do to help his son get off the hook (unlikely) but also what he can do to mend some fences (even more unlikely).

And of course, this being a Die Hard movie all hell breaks loose. Jack is getting ready to testify against a former billionaire named Komarov (Koch) who is on trial on some unspecified corruption charge, but the new minister of defense Chagarin (Kolesnikov) – who was once Komarov’s friend and business partner – is anxious for his old friend to remain silent.

So when an attempt is made to break Komarov out of jail, Jack goes along for the ride only he’s not just a passenger, he’s driving the car – Jack it turns out is a CIA operative and they’re very eager to get their hands on a file containing some damming information about our old friend Chagarin. Unfortunately, Jack shows up in the midst of all the chaos and in trying to help throws Jack’s carefully made arrangements out the door.

Naturally Jack is none too pleased to see his father but now he needs to get Komarov, the file and Komarov’s beautiful daughter (Snigir) out of the country but with Jack’s partners dead, it looks like it will be Russia vs. the McClane’s and as red-blooded Americans we know how all of this is going to turn out – yup, into a showdown at Chernobyl. Literally.

In all honesty, this is a movie that’s like the previous films in the franchise more than it is a Die Hard movie. Yeah, all the elements are there but it just doesn’t have the energy and inspiration the first four movies in the franchise had.

Willis continues to be the Energizer Bunny of action heroes. Throw him through plate glass windows, shoot him, toss him from great heights and he’ll just dust himself off, wipe the blood from a couple of cuts on his bald pate and he’ll just head on to the next action sequence. There were times during the movie that he got out of a situation that should have killed him and I thought “Oh come on!” I would much rather McClane use his cleverness or street smarts to get him out of a situation where he could be killed rather than have him emerge unscathed from a situation in which he should be killed. That takes us out of the movie and descends into self-parody.

Willis has good chemistry with Courtney. While the father-son bonding sequences are a bit weak (although one where Willis asks him if he wants a hug and he responds “We’re not exactly a family of huggers” is pretty good), the two play off of each other nicely. The discord between father and son is palpable but not really explained very well other than “he worked long hours, was never around blah blah blah” which sounds more like the whining of a spoiled brat than of an adult who is so busy working he has no relationships whatsoever. Hmm.

Most of the cast isn’t terribly well-known other than by savvy film buffs but they get the job done. In fact if you’re looking for mindless entertainment, you could do a lot worse than this. It’s just that it doesn’t measure up to any of the first four movies in the franchise so you might think harder about renting one of them instead of spending the bucks to see this in theaters – unless you’re a Die Hard diehard of course.

REASONS TO GO: This is Bruce Willis’ signature role and he’s always worth seeing in it.

REASONS TO STAY: Weakest film in the series to date.

FAMILY VALUES:  As with most Die Hard movies there’s a ton of violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the road trip every car after the original rental had a crushed can of Red Bull on the dashboard.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100; the reviews are pretty damn bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Octopussy

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Picture Me

Men in Black 3


Men in Black 3

Will Smith: 21st Century cool even in the 60s.

(2012) Science Fiction (Columbia) Will Smith, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Emma Thompson, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alice Eve, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mike Colter, Bill Hader, David Rasche, Michael Chernus, Keone Young, Cayen Martin, Lanny Flaherty. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

 

Men in Black is an iconic film from the 90s, one which helped establish Will Smith as the superstar he is today. It has been 15 years since that film came out and ten since its sequel. Does the world need a third, or care about it?

Judging from the early numbers, it does. Agents J (Smith) and K (Jones) are doing what they do best, taking care of aliens violating the law in and around the Manhattan area, but they are both getting too old for this sh….stuff. The two are like a couple that has been married so long that there’s no longer any passion; and J is frustrated that he doesn’t know the close-mouthed K any better than he did when they first met.

On the moon, one of the most dangerous and nastiest aliens to ever be arrested by the MIB organization – Boris the Animal (Clement) – has been imprisoned for forty years, his arm shot off by Agent K at the time of his arrest. He has his first visitor in 40 years – a pen-pal girlfriend (Scherzinger) who brings him a cake that appears to be mostly organic. Not that a file baked into it would do any good – his cell is solid steel. However, there’s a nasty little surprise in the cake that helps him get out of the lunar hoosegow.

Back on Earth, the MIB are mourning the late Zed who is eulogized by O (Thompson), the new leader of MIB, in an alien language that sounds something like seals mating. J and K are continuing to be catty to one another like that previously mentioned old married couple. The next morning J comes to work – and K has been dead for 40 years. He’s also got an insatiable craving for chocolate milk, which according to O is a sure sign of temporal displacement.

But that’s the least of their worries now. The Earth is under attack by the Boglodites, the race of Boris the Animal which should have been impossible because his race died off 40 years early when K had captured Boris and enacted the ArcNet shield around the Earth, preventing the Boglodites from invading back then and causing them to starve to death as a species.

O and J deduce that Boris the Animal must have gone back in time and killed K, leading to the events that were now transpiring. It’s up to J to go back to 1969, rescue K, allow him to put the ArcNet shield up and restore the space-time continuum to where it belongs.

Once in 1969, J discovers that it’s not that easy. Trying to ambush Boris at Coney Island (where J knows he’ll be, owing to the file on the killer stating that he would murder an alien named Roman the Fabulist), unfortunately, J is too late and winds up being captured by the younger K (Brolin) and the 1969 MIB team. It takes a little bit of convincing but J manages to get K to understand that he’s from the future trying to prevent an invasion of Earth – although J leaves out the part that he is also there to prevent K’s death. They are aided by Griffin (Stuhlbarg), a gentle alien who lives five-dimensionally and is able to see every possible future. Now that’s a big help, although it would be, as Griffin himself puts it, a pain in the ass.

However, that is easier said than done. K has no idea what an ArcNet shield is, or how to erect it. There are two Boris the Animals out to murder K, who to J’s astonishment, has a romantic link with the young O (Eve). Plus in order to save the world, J and K are going to have to get through one of the tightest security nets in the history of the United States.

It’s nice to see Smith back on screen again (it’s been three and a half years since he’s been in a movie) and especially in a role that is so identified with him and let’s be frank – a role he does better than anybody else. His chemistry with Jones is scintillating but what’s surprising is that Brolin steps right into the role as the young K and not only mimics Jones perfectly, but also in terms of the chemistry with Smith – it’s almost indistinguishable between the actors. That’s part of what makes the movie worth seeing.

The movie holds up pretty well with the second (although not as well with the first). Rick Baker returns to make plenty of oddball aliens, including Boris the Animal (who has a little spider-like thing that resides in his remaining arm which is able to shoot out fang like darts that can be lethal). I can’t help think about what’s missing from the other films – notably Frank the Pug (who only shows up as a painting in J’s living room), the worm aliens (who make a brief cameo) and Rip Torn as Zed, whose funeral is near the beginning of the film. These were part of the indelible charm of the first two movies and their absence is noticeable.

Other than the time travel element, this is really business as usual for the franchise. Strangely, the filmmakers opt not to use the 60s as much more than a background for the movie (other than a scene set in the Factory of Andy Warhol (Hader) who turns out to be an MIB agent) which is a wasted opportunity; the setting could have enhanced the film a lot more than it did. In some ways, they could have easily set the past sequences in any decade from that standpoint. I would have liked to have seen a bit more use of the time period as a part of the movie.

Don’t get me wrong; this is fine summer entertainment and anyone who chooses to go see it is not going to leave disappointed unless they’re incredibly anal about time travel continuity and the franchise in general. Of course, if you didn’t like the first two films in the franchise, chances are you aren’t going to like this one either since it pretty much is more of the same. Which, to my mind, is a good thing.

REASONS TO GO: Brolin does a great job of channeling Jones. Will Smith is, well, Will Smith. Touching coda.

REASONS TO STAY: Not quite as memorable as the first MIB.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s just a little bit of sci-fi violence and a smidgeon of sensuality – mostly implied.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The mother and daughter in K’s apartment (after he disappears from the timeline) that J gets chocolate milk from are an actual mother and daughter.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The film got decent reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Files: Fight the Future

CHRYSLER BUILDING LOVERS: Will Smith makes his leap into the ’60s from one of the gargoyles at the top of the Chrysler Building.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Town Called Panic