Vince Vaughn electrifies in ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’

Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) doesn’t start fights; he’s “a finisher” who also happens to be psychotic.

An ex-boxer and auto mechanic with a penchant for violence, Thomas takes a job as a drug courier, a risk that ends up with him in jail after a job goes wrong. Once there, he finds out his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) has been kidnaped, and the only way Bradley can save his family is beating everyone up in jail until he gets to cell block 99.

Welcome to the action lovers delight zone, ladies and gentlemen.

Vaughn needed Brawl in Cell Block 99 badly. A comedic actor strung out on bad scripts and career choices, Vaughn swung hard and missed on HBO’s True Detective Season 2, a show that tried to exploit the actor’s dark side and missed. Writer/director S. Craig Zahler handed the 47 year old funny guy the role of a lifetime here. Thomas would be a challenge for most actors, but Vaughn leans into the role of this anti-hero that you can’t help but root for.

With a shaved head carrying a giant crucifix tattoo on the back of his skull, Vaughn’s 6’5″ frame cuts an imposing figure as an ex-con who is told repeatedly by prison wardens like Don Johnson’s Tuggs to not get into any trouble, but decides to get into fights, because he’s “psychotic”. The truth is, Thomas is merely a man trying to save his family, albeit through the most gruesome means necessary.

If you think you know what gruesome fight scenes look like on film, Zahler and and stunt coordinator Corey Pierno have a surprise for you with Brawl in Cell Block 99’s action sequences. In the trailer, you see Vaughn aggressively dismantle a car after he finds out his wife has cheated on him. He tears the hood off the car and hurls it across the grass. That’s nothing compared to what happens about an hour into the film.

For the first half of the film, Zahler and Vaughn cut an intriguing yet familiar picture about a man who makes bad decisions and punches his way out, but a certain scene involving Thomas and a prison guard (Mustafa Shakir) flips the entire film on its head.

From there, arms are snapped in half, skulls are literally crushed, and several other bone fragments are broken in a series of relentless yet impressively filmed fight scenes. Taking a page from the John Wick film universe (films directed by a former stuntman), the camera pans out during Brawl’s hand to hand combat moments, so the audience knows it is Vaughn and not a trio of stunt performers throwing the punches and taking the hits. It’s a startling and effective way to shoot a fight, and it keeps the bloody battles from becoming tiresome.

I couldn’t get enough of the realistic expressions on the characters faces as they were struck by a baton or elbow, before getting flipped to the ground. It looks and sounds real while also tapping into the gory movies from the 1970’s that used props so well that it made the film look like a pulpy comic book.

At the center of the action is Vaughn, who is a revelation as Thomas. This is what you call an actor taking a role and going for broke, throwing everything on the table. Forget what you think you know about the actor and his abilities, because you’re not ready for this flick. Stuck in mediocre mainstream comedy doldrums for years, Vaughn needed Zahler more than the filmmaker needed the actor. It’s like Denzel Washington in Training Day, but even better, because you’ve never seen this side of the actor before.

Vaughn was great in Mel Gibson’s Oscar nominated Hacksaw Ridge, but he’s in 99% of Cell Block 99’s scenes playing a character unlike anything he’s undertaken before. Washington’s menace in Antoine Fuqua’s gang thriller wasn’t as startling as Vaughn’s work here. Calling it his best work is an understatement; Vaughn’s acting in Cell Block 99 is one of the most underappreciated roles from the past five years.

Once Thomas lands in Red Leaf, which is overseen by Johnson (chewing scenery like a boss), things get bad very quick, which only means the brutality gets amped up 1,000 watts. Trust me when I tell you this movie is NOT for the squeamish. If you think Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez are violent storytellers, they have nothing on Zahler’s blood drunk methods.

If you wanted a humanized Terminator thrown into a prison with nothing to lose except blood, sweat, tears, and family, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is your film.

Yes, there’s a little heart thrown into the finale of the film, even if it is a fleeting moment. Yes, Zahler has a story to tell here, but the main theme is the most provocative. Just like he stated in his thrilling western, Bone Tomahawk, Zahler wants to talk to you about the violence that lives inside every single person, and how easy it is to tap into.

I praise the director and star for staying true to their brutal methods all the way up until the very end and the credits. If you need a happy ending, go watch a Stallone film from the 1980’s. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is hardcore madness with a need to impose its will.

Thank you, S. Craig Zahler, for resurrecting Vaughn’s career. You’ll never look at the actor the same way after this film.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 leaves a dent in you.

*The film is currently available on Blu Ray, DVD, and at your neighborhood Redbox as well as Video On Demand. 

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‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is a literal sleeper

This “Lifetime” movie is a literal sleeper

Gloria Grahame (played willingly by Annette Bening) lived a long and fruitful life as an Oscar winning movie star, so why did director Paul McGuigan chose an affair late in her life as the basis for a movie?

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool was adapted from Peter Turner’s (played here by Jamie Bell) memoir by Matt Greenhalgh, which documented his romance with Grahame after the bombshell’s better years were behind her. While it probably made for a good read, the cinematic treatment comes off like a Lifetime movie with a too good for the material cast.

Bening owns an Oscar herself, and sinks her teeth into the role of a woman desperately trying to stay trapped in that young actress’ body as she approaches old age and encounters health issues. She can play the role, but there isn’t much in the script that is demanding or revealing about this woman that couldn’t be found on a Wikipedia page. This is the kind of role/performance that was dreamed up as Oscar bait, but ended up being an ordinary portrayal with no real sizzle. Continue reading “‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is a literal sleeper”

School Shootings: A true look at our mad and irreparable world

Stopping them is still no easy task.

True story. There’s a waiting area for parents on sight when there is a school shooting. Can you imagine that? It’s like taking your kid to the doctor, but the doc may have a gun. You just have to wait.

A shooter in South Florida today walked into a high school and killed “many” students and injured at least 14 others. There wasn’t a reason or warning given prior, or one to be found after the horrible tragedy.

There never is a reason. The only explanation will be that the human species is capable of bad things, and we will be left wondering when it will happen again.

The superintendent for Parkland High School said there were cops positioned outside the school, but the shooter still managed to unleash chaos on the school. Many, including myself, have asked for stronger security at schools to prevent these attacks. Today, it didn’t work.

As a parent, all I can think about are the parents of the kids lost or injured. I imagine getting that phone call while I am out and about, or at home. I can imagine my heart clenching up and the need to call my wife and parents. I would be instructed to stay home and wait by the phone by police, because the shooter would still be at large.

Obviously, I would disobey those commands, and drive to the school. I’d park a few blocks away and get as close as I could on foot. Sooner or later, I would probably be restrained. Thinking about it makes me mad and sad at the same time, like a person trying to run through quicksand in his or her own mind.  Continue reading “School Shootings: A true look at our mad and irreparable world”

‘The Ballad of Lefty Brown’ is a kickass western

Bill Pullman turns in his best performance in years

Poor Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman) can’t get any respect.

The long time friend and colleague of Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda), Lefty is a slow moving yet wise aging cowboy simply trying to do what is right. A man whose lot in life is the loyalty towards his friends and the need to cover up a dark past, even though many around him doubt his ability and thinks he’s useless. When Edward, the newly elected Senator, is gunned down in front of him, Lefty takes it upon himself to find the people responsible.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown may redemption and betrayal flavorings, but its signature ingredient is friendship. What one will do to avenge their friend, no matter what it costs them personally.

Writer/director Jared Moshe’s tale can lift its weight in Western homage territory, but it also hits above average as an entertaining and unpredictable revenge tale. The film isn’t without its fair measure of pathos, but it also has a much needed sense of humor in certain moments that keeps it light on its feet. There are three well staged gunfights that aren’t too close together, giving the film a decent pace. Continue reading “‘The Ballad of Lefty Brown’ is a kickass western”

Interview: ‘Wheelman’ writer/director Jeremy Rush

With Netflix’s Wheelman, writer/director Jeremy Rush set out to make something different.

Working with a simple setup (getaway driver gets sabotaged, spends entire night figuring out who wronged him), a first rate leading man in Frank Grillo and dynamite producer (Joe Carnahan, launching War Party with Grillo), Rush tricked out the action thriller genre entry like a fast car lover would with an old muscle car, replacing an old engine with sophistication instead of the ordinary expectation.

The result was an 82 minute thrill ride, punctuated by pulpy excitement and an exhilarating energy; an experience that triggered old school cinema which relied on its own idea of cool instead of recycling someone else’s model. Continue reading “Interview: ‘Wheelman’ writer/director Jeremy Rush”

Here’s What I Know, Vol. 15: Eastwood, Mayweather Jr., Ted Drewes, and Peaky Blinders

A potpourri of semi-important topics for your consideration.

Good evening, folks. Let’s talk about a few things you may or may not deem important. Tip the whiskey and let’s get started on the latest edition of Here’s what I know, in bullet formation.

  • Clint Eastwood makes very good movies, but occasionally, he can fire a dud out of his filmmaking pistol. His latest, 15:17 to Paris, recounts the heroic tale of three Americans who saved lives on a train in Paris taken over by terrorists. It arrives in theaters this Friday, and WAS NOT screened for critics. I’ve been reviewing films for seven years, and this is never a good sign. It’s like sneaking your girlfriend into a party through the kitchen. The studio didn’t like the cuts of the film they saw, so there were no word-of-mouth generating screenings. We all know the end to the film, so why withhold it? This is not good, but I hope Clint proves me wrong.
  • Ted Drewes and Imos Pizza are institutions for St. Louis residents, and the former reopens this week for people seeking something sweet. Let’s say you hit up the Hill for an Italian dish, but the old fashioned tiramisu doesn’t interest you for dessert. You head over to Ted Drewes for a delicious hot fudge sundae or lemon crumb concrete that will make you believe in world peace for a matter of minutes. People who speak out against it simply don’t know what good custard tastes like. Get over there and have some.

Continue reading “Here’s What I Know, Vol. 15: Eastwood, Mayweather Jr., Ted Drewes, and Peaky Blinders”

2016-2018: The story of my life on the radio

The rise and fall of my AM radio career.

“I’ll be back, in some form, but for the time being, goodnight St. Louis.”

On Friday, I signed off my weekly radio show, “A Dose of St. Louis”, for the final time. After just over three months and 14 shows, it was time to call it. Deciding to stop doing something that gives you pleasure is about as easy as saying no to fresh French fries at McDonald’s, but sometimes, it’s the wiser decision.

Why cut something so short? The answer is simple: AM radio is a brutal business to survive in. A place where making a buck and putting on a good show usually don’t run hand in hand. Like most true stories, going back to the beginning is important in grasping the entire scope of the story.

Jan. 12, 2016. A good man named Chris Denman messaged me on Facebook about coming on his CBS Sports radio show, “We Are Live”, to discuss the Rams departure from St. Louis as well as movies and the Cardinals/Blues. I was following comedian and actor Jay Mohr, and I had no idea what to expect. Why did he want me? Is this a joke? It all swirled around up there before I went on a little after 8 p.m. while I sat in my apartment in North Little Rock, Arkansas.

When I was done, I felt good, but as nervous as a visiting Giants fan in an Eagles bathroom. I chugged a beer, tried to sit down, and immediately threw on some music and paced around my apartment like an artist who just found a new audience, but didn’t know when his next show would be.

I was suddenly passionate about the radio-and I didn’t know how to handle it.

Up until then, I had done a handful of appearances on Rob Butler’s Jonesboro morning radio show, a few Cardinals podcasts, and a couple hits on ESPN’s Columbia, MO radio station, KTGR. In a way, I was everywhere except St. Louis, my hometown.  Continue reading “2016-2018: The story of my life on the radio”