“Brawl in Cell Block 99” introduces the retooled and muscle-plated Vince Vaughn 2.0 headfirst, his shaved and tattooed skull stomping away from the camera like an asteroid hurtling toward earth. Action Vaughn 2.0 has the same movie star qualities as the hunk of “Swingers”: the barreling 6’5″ frame, the deep-set eyes that convinced Rihanna to call him the sexiest man alive.
But now that Vaughn is 47, his powerful torso has the leather-knotted look of a man who spent his life pounding railroad spikes—no vanity abs here—and the exhausted shadows on his face say he’s seen too much. And that’s not just because he and “Cell Block” writer-director S. Craig Zahler just wrapped their second film together, “Dragged Across Concrete,” just four days before flying to Austin for the movie’s American premiere at Fantastic Fest. (It opens theatrically on October 6.)
For the first time in two decades, and too many miscast attempts to play the heel (Norman Bates, anyone?), Vaughn looks like a villain. After testing out darker material in “True Detective” and “Hacksaw Ridge,” the actor had a creative revelation. “My mind kinda shifted,” said Vaughn in an interview at the festival. “I started to think that I wanted to do different things.”
Forget being the funny guy. He wanted to get serious—or at least seriously complicated, challenging, problematic, and scary. When Vaughn read the brutal “Cell Block” script about a man who fights his way into the worst prison wing in the state, he knew it wasn’t “something I would be thought of for necessarily right away.” He also knew it was his chance to reboot his career.
“Vince has a naturally imposing presence,” said Zahler. After “Swingers,” Zahler vowed to watch every Vaughn film from “The Cell” to “Wedding Crashers” and “Old School.” That led him to a new realization. “I’m seeing him do a lot of these comedic things and being told he’s one thing,” Zahler said. “But if I saw him on the street, that’s not who I would think he would be.”
Raze Vaughn’s hair, ink an 8-inch cross on the back of his head, and he could picture Vaughn as “Cell Block” protagonist Bradley Thomas, a limb-snapping, head-crunching drug runner with incredible self-control—he won’t even cough in front of people, lest he show weakness. But Bradley also has a surreal sense of humor. When a flirtatious junkie offers to “put a smile on his nuts,” Bradley blurts, “No, thanks. I don’t want anyone to see their braces.”
“Brawl in Cell Block 99” opens with the ex-addict dismantling his cheating wife’s car by hand. He’s not blinded by rage. He’s methodical, snapping mirrors, punching windows, and gutting the headlights as though his bloody knuckles crave the pain. As Vaughn read the script, the violence got his attention; the next scene got him hooked. After the car is in tatters, the broken husband walks inside, sits down with his wife, and takes his share of responsibility for their dysfunction. He wants to fix things. Still, when she tries to touch him, he recoils.
“He goes in and deals with this real relationship,” said Vaughn. “This is very much two people that have a history. They’re both sober, there’s pain there, they’ve obviously been a support system for each other. That’s why the betrayal was so powerful.” One-note brutes come cheap. So do witchy women. Zahler centered his exploitation flick around a complex marriage. What Bradley and Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) choose to do next sets the rest of the film in motion—and keeps it honest. There’s no happy Hollywood magic, only increasingly awful options.
Zahler likes to defy expectations. He’s an absurdly prolific creator who wrote five metal albums, six novels and nearly 40 screenplays before shooting his first movie, the 2015 Kurt Russell cannibal western “Bone Tomahawk.” To get a film made, Zahler had to direct it himself. He’d already optioned 22 scripts, which had all stalled out.
“Bone Tomahawk” wasn’t a box office hit, but critics rallied behind Zahler’s smart, character-driven script. “I hate to bring this up in public—‘Dungeons and Dragons’ was how I learned to be a writer,” says Zahler with exaggerated shame. “I still play it now.” He couldn’t help bringing up gnomes and elves the first time he met Vaughn. To his relief, he discovered the game had shaped both their careers.
“I loved ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ as a kid,” admits Vaughn. It taught him to embrace playing the heel. “I had just as much fun playing a good character as I would a terrible character—it’s enjoyable to allow that in yourself.”
And it’s enjoyable to watch, even if you spend the last 30 minutes of “Cell Block” covering your eyes. But Bradley is somewhere between good and terrible. His morals are clean. His methods are monstrous. The Dirty Harry types who whoop for retribution might think that Bradley is a hero. Look closely, and Zahler isn’t so sure. As Bradley brakes at a stoplight next to a smack head on a bus bunch, his face flashes with guilt. He’s making money ruining other people’s lives. Maybe he deserves what’s coming.
“I don’t go to movies to be lectured and to have someone’s agenda forced down my throat,” said Zahler. “I’m more interested in building a world that has conflicting points of view than saying, ‘This is what you should think.'” He swore that “Cell Block” isn’t political. He’s going to have to answer that question a lot when “Dragged Across Concrete” opens next year. The cop thriller stars Vaughn and his “Hacksaw Ridge” director Mel Gibson as abusive officers caught beating suspects on tape, who then take their skills underground. Carpenter returns, as does most of the “Cell Block” cast: Udo Kier, Fred Melamed, and Don Johnson.
Zahler’s assembling his army, or as he calls it, “the club of talented folks I want to work with repeatedly.” Don Johnson, who plays a cruel warden in “Cell Block” and a Lieutenant in “Dragged Across Concrete,” was a personal dream. “I grew up in Miami,” said Zahler. “The first thing I ever directed when I was 12 was a Miami Vice play with 11 and 12-year-olds running around with toy uzis.”
You can still feel that daring sense of play in “Brawl in Cell Block 99”—it’s like watching giant boys test their boundaries.
“I feel like there’s too much of a climate of people trying not to offend anybody,” said Vaughn. “It’s always more fun when people are allowed to go with a feeling or a point of view or an expression defiantly.” He’s inspired by rule-breakers from Axl Rose and NWA to the Brothers Grimm. “There’s death and rebirth, there’s flaws, heroes that are complicated,” he grins. “It’s all life experience!” And he’s determined to get as much of it as he can.
“Brawl in Cell Block 99” opens theatrically on October 6 and is available on VOD platforms on October 13.