DVDanger: Brawl in Cell Block 99
Vince Vaughn and Udo Kier on being the heavy
By Richard Whittaker,
2:15PM, Sun. Oct. 15, 2017
There's an old saying: Big dogs don't need to bark. Truth is, the biggest dogs try to curl up the smallest. That may be why Vince Vaughn, all six-foot five of him, looks like he's squeezing himself into the corner of a hotel couch, sipping a tea as he softly talks about the extreme brutality of prison flick Brawl in Cell Block 99.
Vaughn has spent the last decade making the R-rated comedy respectable (or at least profitable) again with crude-but-harmless fun like Unfinished Business and The Wedding Crashers, or fun but really harmless fodder like Delivery Man and The Internship. Most people forgot that Vaughn was a rising character actor of the Nineties, but S. Craig Zahler didn't.
The director of brutal revisionist Western Bone Tomahawk was looking for a mountain of a man to play his lead in Brawl in Cell Block 99, which punches its way on to VOD this weekend. When he started writing the part of boxer-turned-drug-courier-turned-inmate-on-a-mission Bradley Thomas, he knew it was Vaughn. He said, "For me, that's part of the casting process. It's not, what have I been told someone is, but how do I see that person?"
Brawl is a key part of the actor's Renaissance. It arguably began in 2015, with his turn as doomed mobster Frank Semyon in True Detective season 2, followed by brutal martinet Sgt. Howell in Hacksaw Ridge. But one role was in an ensemble, the other a supporting role, and even Vaughn was not sure why Zahler wanted him for this skull-cracking lead role. The director explained, "This is not someone I would think of as the funny man if I saw him on the street. I'm a big fan of the comedy that he's done - I think I remarked early on that he and Bob Newhart probably have my favorite comic timing of any two comedians alive - but when I saw him, it's that people's faces relax in different places. In his, there's an edge, and a bit of menace. On top of that, there's the size that he has."
As the two got to know each other, Zahler discovered Vaughn wrestled in junior high and is a massive boxing enthusiast (even managing Ghanaian welterweight Yakuba Amidu), and felt more comfortable that he could handle the way he would film the fight sequences: long, slow takes, like how a boxing match is shot, showing the fighters' whole bodies. Zahler said, "Once we started doing rehearsals, and I was looking at his work, and his immediate emotional access, and the layers he could put in, it was great."
Bradley's defining moment comes early in the film when he beats a car to death with his bare hands. Perversely, it's not an act of violence. It's his way of avoiding another, far worse moment of conflict. He may be as ruthless and dangerous as any other man on the block, whether inmate or guard, but at least he's not sadistic. "I love the choreography," said Vaughn. "It was new to me, that way that Craig wanted to shoot it. So there was getting over the initial 'How are we going to do this?' and then just being prepared and diving into it. We all just had to really commit to it. It wasn't the safest way to shoot all those fights –"
"Arguably, the least safe way," chimed in Zahler.
"But I think it reads on camera in a great way because of that," Vaughn continued. "It feels very realistic, and it feels like you're in the fight with me."
That sense of realism was refined into Bradley's fighting style, and how his muscle memory would react. Vaughn had recently taken up jiu jitsu, and every time he tried to put a throw or submission into the mix, "Craig would say, 'No. he doesn't know jiu jitsu. He's a boxer.'"
The end result is brutal but effective, which for Vaughn reflects the heart of Bradley, who is only doing this to protect his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter, Dexter). "It's clear he doesn't want to participate in this stuff, he doesn't want these things in his life, he doesn't want to hurt. But when he gets into it, it's just very matter-of-fact. he's going to do what he needs to get past it, with very little remorse."
Yet, for all his strength, his downfall comes at the hands, or rather words, of Udo Kier as a mob fixer. While Bradley is physically imposing, the nameless placid man is truly terrifying. "Udo has his special world," said Zahler. "You can have human beings, but I'm choosing Udo. He's this fantastic reptilian entity, just a unique presence."
The man, the myth, the legend that is Udo Kier, whose role in Andy Warhol's outrageously gory 1973 arthouse shocker Flesh for Frankenstein immediately transformed him into an icon of dissident cinema, is a favorite of radical directors like Lars von Trier and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Few living actors convey bizarre malice like Kier.
In person, Kier is charming, stylish, and affable, looking and acting barely a fraction of his 72 years. He frets about giving two different journalists the same answer, and talks about calling his beloved dog every night when he's on the road.
It's not necessarily what one would expect from the notorious hellraiser, but it explains why Zahler cast him as the nameless gentile and placid man: a dapper older gentleman with an extreme sadistic streak. "I'm not really bad in the film," said Kier. "I'm just working for a mafia boss, to deliver a bad message. I'm not doing anything. I have my own tired way of delivering the message."
Zahler always envisioned Kier for the part, but the veteran German actor was initially put off by the complexity of the language. "There were so many words I had to look up, and then I have to ask friends how to pronounce it," he said. However, "I like to work with directors who write their own stories. Lars von Trier, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog: They all write, which is much better because it's their baby, and they know what they want."
That's part of why he signed up for Zahler's already-completed follow-up to Brawl: police brutality drama Dragged Across Concrete, which reunites Carpenter, Kier, Vaughn, and Brawl co-star Don Johnson, while adding Vaughn's Hacksaw Ridge director Mel Gibson, and Michael Jai White to the ensemble. Zahler said, "The versatility that Vince has, and that Jennifer Carpenter has, is the reason that I wanted to bring them forward to the next one, and that we're already talking about the one after that."
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is available on VOD now.