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

Ong Bak 3


Ong Bak 3

Tony Jaa doesn’t much like his new spear collar.

(2010) Action (Magnet) Tony Jaa, Dan Chupong, Sorapong Chatree, Nirut Sirichanya, Primrata Det-Udom Phetthai Wongkhamlao, Sarunyoo Wongkrachang, Chumphorn Thepphithak. Directed by Tony Jaa and Panna Rittkrai

 

I’ll say it now and get it out of the way – Tony Jaa is one of the most charismatic and breathtaking martial arts stars in the world today. Maybe Jet Li and Bruce Lee in their heydays could keep up with Jaa, but nobody today can. The action sequences he does are done au natural – that is, without wires, CGI or any film trickery; when Jaa runs up the tusk of an elephant, he really does. When he bounces off a wall to kick an enemy fighter in the face, that’s all him. To watch him is to watch human endeavor at its best.

What Jaa really needs though is a writer and director who can give him something to work with. While the first film in the series had a good story and character development, the second film was a royal mess. In many ways this is a bit of an improvement – but still, at the end of the day, it doesn’t quite add up to a coherent whole.

Picking up where the previous film left off, Tien (Jaa) is now in the hands of the ruthless warlord Rajasena (Wongkrachang). Rajasena, you may remember, murdered Tien’s parents in front of him when Tien was but a child. Now we find out why – Rajasena has a curse leveled on him which prophesized that he would be killed by someone…ummm…no, that’s not it…by someone who…no, not that either. Okay, the explanation didn’t make any sense either. Moving on.

Rajasena has Tien beaten within an inch of his life. Rajasena watches this with the repulsive glee of a sadist, then as sadists will he grows bored an orders his men to kill Tien. Before they can behead him, an envoy from the king arrives with a pardon which irritates Rajasena no end but there isn’t anything he can do. Unfortunately, Tien has died from the severity of his beating so his body is taken to a small village where his old friend Master Bua (Sirichanya), who has joined a Buddhist monastery as a monk over the guilt he experienced for his actions in the previous film uses an ancient treatment regimen to help revive the late Tien who as it turns out wasn’t quite dead yet.

After being caked in mud for a bit, Tien emerges a little less inclined towards beating people up and learns from Bua and his fellow monks the tenets of peace, harmony and elephants; Buddhism seems to suit the new Tien but things are getting worse outside of the walls of the monastery. A new figure has emerged in the villain scene, one even nastier than Rajasena. He’ s Bhuti Sangkha (Chupong) who briefly showed up in the last film to kick Tien’s ass decisively (the only person to do that) and as it turns out, the movie is big enough for only one baddie with ambitions to rule all of Asia. Rajasena has to go and go he does, but not before levying a curse on Bhuti the baddie – from his severed head no less. Nobody can say these Thai filmmakers aren’t over the top.

This sets up a showdown between Bhuti and Tien because…well, because. Only one will walk away but can Tien who has renounced violence and nobody is really sure if he retained his martial arts skills (big hint – he did) can defeat the magically enhanced Bhuti.

The action sequences once again are worth it. Chupong is nearly as accomplished a martial artist as Jaa and the fight between the two may well become a classic confrontation for the genre. However the action bits are few and far between here; during filming of the first film Jaa had something of a breakdown which – and things are vague here – either was a result of financial issues during filming or caused them. Either way, he became a devout Buddhist and joined a monastery his own self following the conclusion of filming. It seems likely that Jaa wanted to impose his new-found pacifist beliefs on the films, which doesn’t really work well when your audience is expecting – nay, demanding – wall-to-wall ass kicking.

If anyone can pull it off, it’s Jaa and he comes close. His natural charisma and likableness make him one of the most compelling stars in Asia today (and yes, for those wondering, he has recently left the monastery and will be returning to acting on screens next year). Compared to the mish mash that was the last film, this is far easier to follow. If it weren’t for the gigantic lull in the middle, this might even compare favorable to the first film. However those who come to Jaa’s films for the action will find it light on that element although what’s here is memorable.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine action footage – when they get around to it. A bit more competent in the storytelling than the previous entry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags quite a bit in the middle for an action film.

FAMILY VALUES: Once again, the violence is pretty intense with this installment in the trilogy being a bit more bloody than the first two films.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Quite a bit of the footage in Ong Bak 3 was filmed during the production of Ong Bak 2: The Beginning; the delays in filming that project led to the decision to add a third film to the series with some of the completed footage moved to that film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.3M on an unreported production budget; while this probably made money, it was a disappointment compared to previous films in the series.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ong Bak 2: The Beginning

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Matrix Revolutions

A History of Violence


A History of Violence

Viggo Mortensen is so hot that Ed Harris has to wear shades just to look at him.

(2005) Thriller (New Line) Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk, Kyle Schmid, Sumela Kay, Gerry Quigley, Deborah Drakeford, Heidi Hayes, Aidan Devine, Michelle McCree. Directed by David Cronenberg

Funny thing about the past; it has a tendency to catch up with you. Especially when you least expect it to – and where you least expect it to.

Tom Stall (Mortensen) lives a quiet life in a small Indiana town. He owns a popular diner, is married to a beautiful native named Edie (Bello) and has two kids including a teenager named Jack (Holmes) who has taken his mild-mannered father’s lessons to heart and has as a result been picked on by bullies who are frustrated by Jack’s refusal to fight.

One night, all that is shattered when a couple of small-time hoods (McHattie, Bryk) come into his diner. They terrorize his patrons and despite Tom’s pleas for them to leave peaceably, it appears they are going to kill a waitress when Tom suddenly reacts with decisive action, killing both of the crooks.

Unfortunately, Tom’s actions get noticed by the media and he is painted as a hero. This is, in turn, noticed by a very bad man named Carl Fogarty (Harris) who seems to think that Tom is someone named Joey Cusack. Tom doesn’t appear to know Fogarty, but doubts are cast in the mind of his wife and the town sheriff (MacNeill). The question becomes who is Tom Stall and why is he so good at killing people?

By far, this is Cronenberg’s most mainstream movie. Known for cult films (Naked Lunch, Videodrome) and horror classics (The Brood, Scanners), he has a gift for taking a normal, safe environment and turning it upon itself until it is virtually unrecognizable. Here, he does that in a literal way; the man we think we know (and the man Edie Stall thought she married) turns out to be someone so different as to be almost a different species. This is not an easy adjustment to make and some may find it too much for them.

On the other hand, the adjustment is made easier by bravura performances by Mortensen, Bello, Harris and Holmes. Also worth noting is Hurt’s role as a man pivotal to Tom’s past. It is interesting that Hurt appears in only one scene, but his performance is so dynamic that he wound up being nominated for an Oscar for that one scene.

Violence is often used as the last refuge for survival, and Cronenberg seems to say it is justified in that case. However, is there a Joey Cusack lurking in every Tom Stall? Given the right circumstances, I think – and I have a feeling that Cronenberg agrees – there is.

WHY RENT THIS: Cronenberg’s most mainstream film. Terrific performances by Mortensen, Harris, Bello and Holmes – and an Oscar-nominated one by Hurt.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending isn’t what you might like it to be.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some brutal violence, a good deal of sexuality (as well as some nudity), a bit of drug use and foul language to boot.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last major Hollywood film to be released in the VHS format.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a featurette on Scene 44, a dream sequence that was cut from the movie but was polished and added here as a special feature.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.7M on a $32M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Runaways