By Joe Gabriele
Man, what are we supposed to do with Vince Vaughn these days?
I know he wants to be taken seriously as an actor. We all do. But after watching him build a career off his trademark irreverent cool, it’s odd seeing him as a bald, brooding, hulking hillbilly in S. Craig Zahler’s recent indie breakout, “Brawl in Cell Block 99” – a film in which he beats up or kills every character but the prison warden (Don Johnson) and his wife (Jennifer Carpenter), although he beats the living shit out of his wife’s car within the first ten minutes of the opening credits.
“Brawl in Cellblock 99” is cartoonish but oddly compelling. Vaughn’s character (Bradley Thomas) is a former drug-runner-turned-tow truck driver. After being laid off from the towing company and discovering his wife’s been having an affair, he returns to the drug trade in order to get his life back together. Duh.
“Eighteen Months Later” – as we’re told – we see Vaughn and his (now-pregnant) living the good life – three sweet cars and swanky digs. But a botched drug deal lands Vaughn in prison, where he must kill another inmate to save the life of his wife and unborn child.
Several questions arise …
- The amount of money lost in the botched drug deal was $3.2 million dollars and, in the film, Cell Block 99 was for the prison’s worst scumbags – rapists, pedophiles, etc. Couldn’t the drug kingpin have given some other scumbag a carton of Marlboro Reds to wax this guy? Did he need a legendary brawler like Vaughn’s character?
- Is Vince Vaughn a bald or did he just shave his head for the movie? This doesn’t seem like it would change things, but it does. A man gets angrier when he loses his hair – like Michael Jordan. If Vince Vaughn is no longer the winsome, whimsical soul that he’s been with hair, I’m much more apt to believe him as a sulking brute who spends 75 percent of the film punching people and breaking various limbs.
- Why can’t there be a move in which Vince Vaughn punches Owen Wilson’s character in the face repeatedly before graphically crushing his head like a canteloupe with his oversized soft-cloth prison slippers? (Something he does to no less than three characters in the film’s final 15 minutes.)
You get the picture. “Brawl in Cell Block 99” isn’t a character study. It’s not even a slow burn.
So if you want to see Vince Vaughn encouraging Jon Favreau to hook up with beautiful babies or watch him break up with Jennifer Aniston or cracking wise and sneaking into weddings with Owen Wilson – this is NOT the film for you.
If you want to watch Vince Vaughn lumbering around, cracking semi-wise with a barely-passable southern accent, punching out drug dealers, prison guards, a martial artist, Latino gang members and his cheating wife’s late-model Mitsubishi – then this is DEFINITELY the film for you.
“Brawl in Cell Block 99” plays like the standard modern-day movie formula: Retired guy just looking to mind his business – (but also with a ‘very particular set of skills’ from his previous life – reluctantly drawn back into a sordid underbelly in which he has to crush bad guys’ heads like canteloupes with his prison shoes to protect a loved one.
We’ve seen Denzel, Liam Neeson, Kevin Costner and even Jackie Chan play the role. But we’ve never seen someone play it like Vince Vaughn. And there’s something cathartic about watching the 6-5 star stomping shit out for a couple hours.