This article originally appeared on VICE Canada. My talk with Vince Vaughn and Don Johnson got weirdly deep at points. I say this because existential truths about human behavior aren't the conversations that I expect next to my exploitation film. It makes my head hurt. This is supposed to be a sacred place, absent of that everything-has-a-deeper-meaning pretentious-guesswork-bullshit that's read in every university textbook. Here, one can shut the brain off and welcome in the gratuitous violence, shock, death, and sex that lives here—where they mean what they say, and do what they mean. With all that said, Brawl in Cell Block 99, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival, felt like an exception to my rule—one worthy of deeper conversations compared to past genre stuffers for reasons that will be made clear later.
What I do know, however, is that over the years since the 60s and 70s, when the term "exploitation" was still associated with gum-pit grindhouse theaters and drive-in features, a brand-new wave of exploitation-film emerged as these arthouse, A-list drops of artful violence (see Quentin Tarantino). They morphed, becoming in a lot of ways, more "respectable" narratively, compared to their former cousins like Cannibal Holocaust .
S. Craig Zahler's Brawl in Cell Block 99 is an offspring of that change. It takes a stoic, calm, bald-headed badass played by Vince Vaughn and places him in a desperate economic situation. Later, we're introduced to a set of circumstances that force Bradley Thomas to turn to crime to make ends meet, which inevitably land him in the worst kind of situations. What comes later are smashed in faces, broken arms, and twisted necks; and it only gets worse from there.
So during TIFF, I had a chance to meet up with Vince Vaughn and the legendary Don Johnson, who plays Warden Tuggs, about the film, and why this form of exploitation doesn't seem to feel all that exploitive.
VICE: I noticed that there's this gradual pace to this film. It deals in extremes, often going from zero to 100, making the violence seem so much more satisfying when it actually does happen.
Vince Vaughn: That's the thing: It's not like he just throws violence at you for no reason. You sit with these characters and slowly learn his situation prior to it happening. When the violence happens, it's pretty damn brutal. So combine that character work, with the way he handles himself fighting, and it's so powerful. You sit with these guys so long in these ordinary situations like getting coffee at a diner and see them transform into arm-breaking machines.
The role is obviously unlike any other character you've played. You don't find huge amounts of dialogue here, and there's barely a backstory. A lot of the initial appeal comes from what you see visually. So what was it about the script on paper that made you go all in?
It first grabbed me when I read a scene where my character comes home like shown in the trailer, and he beats up his car in the most comical way. You later see that his wife was up to things that would hurt any man. You see the pain he has, and despite his bland personality, you can see that he's very capable of being angry but distances himself from that. I was so surprised by the conversation he has with her involving his forgiveness, which brings them closer. That's unique in a situation that would warrant a divorce or breakup. I didn't expect that, and I loved him for it, because I thought in his pain, in his hurt, there's so much understanding and forgiveness that they're capable of, which I think in life, we all kind of think that if people can make mistakes, there's a bond, or there's still a way of finding yourself back from that. That became very rootable for me.
Don Johnson: Even with the most heinous people on the planet, there's humanity. It's hard to see past their behaviors, and it's hard to see past their actions, but everyone is carrying the light. I personally broach every character like that—no matter what their behavior is, no matter how they are behaving in the moment. Whether the circumstances facilitated the behavior still has some light, so I try to find that even in the most difficult of circumstances.
And, Don, you play this prison chief, Warden Tuggs, whose job is to make Bradley's life a living hell at a stage in the film. He's a very interesting guy, and I wish he got more screen time. Tell me about the fun factor in playing that character with your experience.
I liked how precise and precision-based he was. And how in his world, it's like you have just entered Warden Tuggs's world, and don't-tell-me-my-business attitude. He's got a system, and from the moment you realize that he's not going to get ruffled by anything, there's nothing that's going to bother him too much because he knows how to manage his world. I was just telling Vince that I see my character going home to his wife. He's got a family, maybe a grandchild or something, and he has a regular, ordinary life beyond his cold attitude.
This film had a lot of static scenes where it required you to actually look like you know what you're doing in a fight scene. It's just pure gritty fisticuffs, and nothing looked overly pretty and neat. It looked authentic. How difficult was it to pull it all off?
Vaughn: It was very challenging. I mean, Craig Zahler is very demanding in terms of what he wants in a great way. I wrestled competitively when I was younger. I boxed, and I currently do jiu jitsu, so I had what you'd call a foundation. But I really had to revisit boxing because it had been forever since I had shadowboxed just to get used to moving. Because these were so elaborately choreographed, it was important that the fights looked real, that you always saw me and my face. We only had a mere 25 days to shoot this, so there was always a pressure to get things done. So the more prepared I was, it gave me permission to dive into it and almost trust myself that I was going to get this done.
I have so much trust for Craig. He's so meticulous, and he has such great taste that I felt the need to come in as ready as I could. I mean, sure, I fought before, but not like this, not with these wides and 15 to 20 move combinations that were happening in one single take.
I had no idea what to expect with this film like many will when they read this interview. We aren't told in-depth about what his background is. And this cross on the back of his head stares at you throughout the film. But there's enough here to understand.
We learn things in bits. We learn that he's trying to stay clean and straight. And there's obviously a lot of pain involved with his life, including a previous miscarriage with his wife and that they're both ex-addicts. They're just trying to have a good positive experience in life, but it's just not working out for them. All of us as people can understand that type of pain—those types of obstacles—and we don't need to dive into exact specifics to get that. It's one of the things I loved about the script. That there's enough to fill in the blanks without belaboring it with saying it's exactly this or that.
Johnson: And oddly enough, when seen for the second time, you start to see those bits and pieces that make you comfortable in the sense that this is an authentic person with an authentic backstory, that's curious and interesting to you while you're in the moment. It's not like it's missing; it's that it comes in brush strokes and lets you fill in some places, and that's a really interesting way to tell a story. You're not going to see a character in the same way that I see that character because our experiences are different. And our experiences inform our belief systems about who that person is before a moment.
For instance, I have no issue with the violence dealt by the main character Bradley because I've personally known a lot of guys like Bradley. I've built that part of the world a little bit in my mind, where there's violence, and it's prevalent, and life is cheap. This is a character who still has the humanity and tenderness required to love a baby like shown in the film. I truly believe that this movie is a love story, and it's the pre-mortal instinct as a human to have a child, pass on his DNA, and protect that child by any means necessary. Everything else is forgivable after that.
Going off of the complex emotions of Bradley, was it particularly hard for you, Vince, to play his character? You're so used to playing far more quirky, humorous roles.
Vaughn: It's interesting. He still has a sense of humor at points, so you had your shots of revealing stuff I guess. But it was a joy to play him, and I think Don hit it on the head about how I connected to it on a base level. It was someone that we think most people can relate to, because there's a level of pain and hurt in his life. There's the things you want and the things you want to connect to. And the need to be loved and we as people struggle to find those connections to be a part of those needs in a way that feels pure. I feel like that's who Bradley really was. Which would only be far more challenging if I weren't human. I imagine what may have happened to him when he was younger beyond his choosing. I dreamed of the the relationships he wished he could be in. To get to happiness, he has to go through these extreme obstacles that turn his life in a way he didn't plan for.
It was physically demanding more than it was emotionally.
So, hey, you obviously got the stuff to be an action star. Do you see yourself doing this again?
[ Laughs] This really came from a place of wanting to do a really authentic story that just happened to be cool. I hadn't seen it laid out like this. It was more from a character place that brought out the passion in me, and the other stuff that came with it, so I was going to do it. I mean, I'd be open to doing more stuff like this, sure, but I want it to come from the same place I guess where I was buying into the story. I'm more a fan of that stuff then necessarily the aesthetic.
Given what many people may assume about this film, what are you hoping people get away from it?
The film is more than a morality tale. It's sort of a guy that makes decisions for reasons we could root for, but then you watch how it play out. Just for audiences, I think what they'll take away from this is that it's just fun seeing something that's so badass—that's so unapologetic and so well done. Here, you have those shock moments, and those things that make you go: Did they really just go there? But you're also allowed to take your time and enjoy the other stuff.
Catch the North American theatrical release on October 7.
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