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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The Death of Vince Vaughn’s career

Vince Vaughn was once one of the best comedy actors in Hollywood. Now his career is drunk.

Vince Vaughn got a spot on the walk of fame in Hollywood last year. That’s nice and all but unless that was shit he dipped his hands into, it’s not that great of a moment. Vaughn has been churning out flops for years now, and he is 46 years old.

As a fan of his older work, he has me worried. He has either suddenly become unfunny or is making terrible career choices. His movies aren’t making money or laughs and he looks like he is trying very hard. What happened to the guy who made laugh so hard and fast in Wedding Crashers that my dad and I nearly had to leave the theater to catch our breath? He’s fucking gone and I don’t know when he is coming back.

His latest drivel, 2015’s Unfinished Business, opening to 5 million dollars in 2,777 domestic locations. That’s the kind of dough a small indie makes in several weeks or what Fifty Shades of Grey grossed in an hour. It’s pathetic because Vaughn is talented and as his character has said plenty over the years, “you’re better than this.”

What is the last official good Vaughn flick? Into the Wild in 2007, where he drew upon some of his earlier dramatic work to produce a juicy supporting role as a man who helps Emile Hirsch’s seeker along the way. The Break Up came out a year earlier and got a lot of attention due to Vaughn’s romance with his co-star Jennifer Aniston. It was a very funny film that allowed Aniston to not suck for a change and holds up well on repeat viewings(just watched it on cable last month several times). That was good comedy. Jon Favreau was there and so was Jason Bateman.

It was the end of a fantastic run for Vaughn, one that started with Old School and continued with Starsky and Hutch, Dodgeball, a great role in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and culminated with Crashers. He couldn’t miss then and was so funny. If he was able to unleash his own brand of comedy, the film was better for it. These days, his methods and madness has tamed and gone to crap. Last year’s Internship was especially sad. He co-wrote the film and helped produce it, and the result was a playful if horribly unfunny exercise that made Adam Sandler seem more appealing. The Dilemma opened to 7 million domestically.

Vaughn’s cameo in Anchorman 2, like the entire sequel itself, was overwrought and not funny. It was forced, which is the exact feeling I have when the last 8 years of his work comes to mind. What’s wrong with the guy? Being a Cubs fan always concerns me, but it could be more than that. Maybe, Vaughn likes playing the same loveable lug with a heart of gold and a smart ass mouth. Playing the same guy has suited a man like Jason Statham quite well over the course of his career. He knows exactly what he is and hasn’t strayed. Vaughn was once considered not funny enough when auditioning for Swingers due to his early dramatic work and now he isn’t funny enough to make a shitty script sing for the fans. What gives?

Vaughn may be getting a clue. He took a crucial part in HBO’s True Detective second season this summer, playing a criminal under siege. It’s television but it’s a highly regarded Emmy nominated series with loads of cinematic talent involved. It could be the starting point of something special for Vaughn, because his other 2015 release(The Peter Billingsley directed Term Life) doesn’t look too promising. After the HBO stint, Vaughn should look into a Wedding Crashers or Old School sequel or look into an indie production. Sometimes, you have to go back in order to move forward. Yeah, I just stole a Matthew McConaughey line from a Lincoln car commercial. You see the depths I’m going to in this article. It’s sad. The last chunk of Vince Vaughn’s career has been sad.

Here’s what he has coming up. The drama/comedy Term Life this year followed by roles in Brawl in Cell Block 99, The Archbishop and the Antichrist, and Hacksaw Ridge. Fuck me.

Can he recover it? Who knows. What will it take? Something that thrills us or makes us laugh will do. The good thing about the movies is a comeback story can happen at any age and the audiences is always waiting to celebrate it.

The bad news is Vince Vaughn is turning into Adam Sandler real quick. Stop it dude.

True Detective’s Season 2 Finale: A Giant Mess

True Detective’s Season 2 was a mess, and something creator Nic Pizzolatto will struggle to come back from. My review.

(In case you missed it on KSDK)

Picture yourself ordering a big juicy ribeye steak and you get a dried up bland T-bone steak cooked by a cook who hates his job. That’s what I got after 8 hours of heavy handed drama on HBO’s season 2 of True Detective. The finale stunk up the room and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. How did golden boy Nic Pizzolatto round up all this talent and mess this up? Next time, Nic, buy a diaper and unload in that instead of all over people who pay top dollar for HBO and went into this summer expecting something better.

I gave this season time to grow on me. Think of spending a few hours with a VERY serious kid at a playground. He’s cool and wants to have fun but can’t stop talking about philosophical meanings and boring layered narratives. That’s True Detective in 2015. Overwrought and overcooked and just too much in the end. Worst of all, its creator lost his compass. Pizzolatto can write twisty seedy stories about the rugged battles we fight within our subconscious on a daily basis but believe me he had better than this assortment of characters running around with their heads cut off in the middle of this mystery plot.

Hey, there’s Vince Vaughn, trying to recover some dignity from a career that fell straight down the soft comedy rabbit hole. Vaughn was trained on theater and came up in Hollywood through dramas like Clay Pigeons and Return to Paradise. What happened to that magnetic presence from Swingers? Vaughn was miscast here as a former criminal trying to go straight and a stupid one at that. He couldn’t handle the dialogue and never seemed comfortable except for a handful of scenes. Maybe he bit down too hard on the comedy bug or maybe he wasn’t meant for this gym class.

Look at Taylor Kitsch, playing the most doomed closeted gay cop of all time. So serious, never smiling and tormented beyond belief. The main recipe this season was inner torture. Look at me, I am pale, unhappy and out of cigarettes. Show pity on me. Taylor’s Paul, an ex-soldier trying to ride a patrol bike who gets sucked into this crime investigation set to explode. He never seemed right for the job, the same way the actor never knew quite how to play his character. When he found his step, it was overacting. So visible and forced.

Same for Rachel McAdams, the beautiful talented actress who is working so much right now she may need a break. Sometimes, when actors work at much as she has in the past year, I wonder if they don’t know how to handle a big role like this. Her overprotective, damaged, knife wielding badge started out like someone we could like in a dirty cool way, but quickly her character boiled too much and the goods spilled out. By the end of Sunday’s finale, I really didn’t care what happened to her character because I never felt like I knew her.

Colin Farrell’s Ray was the only character I felt had a complete base to work off of. A cop whose wife was brutally raped, a crime that set Ray off on a revenge trail that left him thinking he had killed his wife’s attacker but spending the rest of his life not sure if his son was really his. Farrell adopted this deep slightly Southern drawl and assortment of plaid shirts and funky facial hair to rip into Ray. It was like his Miami Vice character went to Texas and came back a changed much more tormented dude. A sad one but a character we cared about. Farrell can visually project 80 emotions on his face but in the end, the showrunners did him wrong, at least in my eyes. They walked him into a trap. I didn’t expect characters to find happiness at the end, but I expected they’d read something better than what they found.

One character needed his comeuppance and didn’t get it. You’ll know if you watch.

Season 1 was brilliant because it had a sexy confidence, was extremely well written and felt fresh and rightfully gloomy. People were sad, drinking too much, way too violent, but they had a purpose throughout the misery. The season had a vibe and a pulse. It was a wild guitar solo that seemed to last for 7 hours before encore sprung this culmination of all the plot threads. It also had a white hot can’t go wrong Matthew McConaughey meeting the character of a lifetime in Rust Cohle. A man who preached about a flat circle. Maybe Pizzolatto should have stuck with that circle and brought him back, along with Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart.

To me, the biggest missing element from Season 2 was a foil for the seriousness of the main characters. Season 1 balanced McConaughey’s madness and wrenching monologues with the bewildered humor and light presence of Harrelson. Season 2 was missing a Woody Harrelson. Something to balance all the depressed folks out. Too bad.

Another missing element from Season 2 was director Cary Fukunaga, a maverick world creator from Season 1 who turned Louisiana’s swamp into a gothic lost and found crime zone. The rift between him and Pizzolatto split the marriage they shared via True Detective and deprived Season 2’s players of a great director. Without his compass(Fukunaga’s camera), Pizzolatto was lost this go around.

Maybe Season 3 brings back Cohle and Hart. Go back to what worked and what put you on the map, Nic. Season 2 found you without a purpose. Season 2 felt like leftovers in a broken refrigerator. It was the little brother trying to be as cool as the older star athlete and coming up short. Maybe fans were set up to be disappointed.

True Detective Season 2 tried to go big with a larger cast and wide spreading mystery plot. It misfired, badly. You can go back and watch it again, and I’m sure the effect wouldn’t be better. Only worse.

Nice try, Pizzolatto. Next time, find a worthy story, characters worth caring about and something fresh. Take some time my friend. You need it after that strikeout.

In the meantime, go catch up on Cinemax’s Banshee, a show that DOES NOT disappoint. Like ever.

Hard boiled True Detective sizzles with intrigue

s2-key-art-charactersWelcome to True Detective, where everybody has a dark past, is full of white hot rage and feels like punching someone several times. There are no clean cut square characters in creator Nic Pizzolatto’s HBO landscape of broken souls, messy personalities and anger management blues. Everybody is guilty. It just matters how far they have plunged down the rabbit hole of regret.

Pizzolatto staked himself to a career of cool guy nods and free seats at any restaurant in Hollywood when he crawled up inside Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle last year in the debut season of the HBO drama. Ever since he threw that batting practice fastball to the actor who couldn’t miss at the moment, everything is different. Nic changed things. The expectations raised. The main cast members doubled and the plot thickened.

Season 2 takes place in LA, the city of seriously deranged angels. Three different law officers(Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch) come together on a dead body on a piece of land that may cause a stir for a career criminal(Vince Vaughn) trying to go businessman legit. Nothing goes as planned. A premium cable drama doesn’t walk a straight line. Think of a storyteller going over all the daily vitamins for success. Darkness, bad deeds, corruption, extortion and more murder follow the next seven episodes.

Let’s go down the main characters one by one, like a viewer sitting down with each person at an interrogation table with two 60 watt bulbs flashing in their face. Continue reading “Hard boiled True Detective sizzles with intrigue”