With Bone Tomahawk, writer-director S. Craig Zahler expertly melded the pursuit-abduction Western with Cannibal Holocaust-level gore … this follow-up has something of the feel of Don Siegel’s muscular crime-prison movies of the 1950s (Riot in Cell Block 11, obviously) and ‘70s (Escape From Alcatraz) with a grand guignol angle as faces are scraped off and heads repeatedly stomped. Most contemporary filmmakers who try such reboots tend to go over the top dramatically, with Tarantino motormouth dialogue or Eli Roth degrees of misanthropy, but Zahler surprisingly reins in the mannerisms. Though the storyline takes its protagonist by increments from a realistic setting to a fantastical one, the only excessive factor here is the violence – characterisation is mostly low-key and believable, the pace is even enough (over a 132 minute running time) for the hero’s downward journey to resonate and a cast of great character players (all capable of chewing scenery) act with precision and intensity. It’s such strong meat that some audiences will have trouble watching all the way through, but it’s also fiercely humane (even patriotic) in an old-fashioned way, with Vince Vaughn – usually a smooth-talking, nervous, smarmy leading man – as a shave-pated professional crook and devoted family man whose commitment to protecting his loved ones takes him literally to the darkest places imaginable. Vaughn may not be the only former indie rom-com/comedy lead to reinvent himself as an ass-kicking hardman in middle-age, but his character here is by some gradations harder than John Wick, Bryan Mills or whoever Sean Penn played in The Gunman.
Bradley Thomas (Vaughn), who resists being called Brad and is unusually formal with everyone as if keeping his rage controlled at all times, is let go from a mechanic job and finds that his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), depressed after a miscarriage, is cheating on him … the only way he can see to keep his life and improve his home situation is to take a job ‘delivering packages’ for a well-off drug dealer pal Gil (Mark Blucas). Eighteen months later, the Thomases are in a better house and Lauren is pregnant – but Gil asks Bradley to go on a pick-up with a couple of goons in the employ of Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito), a showier drug lord. Bradley thinks the deal is sketchy but is pressured into signing up by the promise of paternity leave – not the sort of perk one associates with drug-dealing operations. The pickup goes wrong and Bradley acts with a kind of weird integrity that impresses the cops (Clark Johnson is on the case) but still lands him a seven-year prison stretch. All this is prologue, though it shows Bradley stepping out of line while trying to preserve his essential self … the really grim twist comes after he has been processed by ‘the Fridge’, a medium security prison, in scenes reminiscent of Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time, when a surprise visitor (Udo Kier, who always brings a horror movie feel to his cameos) informs him that his wife has been kidnapped and an abortionist is ready to do unspeakable things to his unborn daughter, but she can go free if he discharges his debt to Eleazar by murdering a convict called Christopher Bridge. The problem is that Bridge isn’t in the Fridge, but in Red Leaf – a maximum security hellhole – and furthermore is kept in Cell Block 99, which is reserved for the worst offenders of all.
The only way Bradley can get to Cell Block 99 is to become such a danger to correctional officers and other inmates that he is transferred from the drab but reasonably humane surroundings of the Fridge to the dank dungeons of Red Leaf, where the warden (Don Johnson) has a nice line in inspirational speeches but also a collection of antique correctional instruments he thinks Amnesty International would frown on – including a remote-controlled stun belt. Oh, and to make it worse, when Bradley asks around, no one has heard of the con he’s supposed to kill … There are conventional prison movie elements here – brutally corrupt guards, exercise yard fights, a kingpin running his empire from inside – but this is a spare, lean vision of the hell of incarceration. The Fridge is impersonal, concrete and depressing, but a storage space for unwanted people, with officials who are neutral, helpful or (at worst) petty (Fred Melamed in a nice cameo) … and Red Leaf is the sort of institution found in the likes of The Count of Monte Cristo, It’s Never Too Late to Mend or Brute Force, a black, filthy, dripping dungeon with broken glass on the floor. Of course, the high concept is that this isn’t a film about a prison breakout, but the story of a con who wants to get into the worst part of the worst prison around – which turns out to be just the beginning of his ordeal and struggle to save his family. Like Bone Tomahawk, this ends with ultra-violence – some so extreme even gorehounds won’t have seen the like before – and an emotional payoff … plus a distinctive end credits song by Zahler himself, here performed by The O’Jays.