EXCLUSIVE: Vince Vaughn is returning to the Venice Film Festival this week after last year’s triumphant Lido world premiere of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. This time, he’ll be in town with S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99. The action/crime thriller is screening out of competition and also stars Jennifer Carpenter, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas and Don Johnson.
Vaughn plays a former boxer-turned-drug runner who lands in a prison battleground after a deal gets deadly. And he cuts an impressive figure, topped with a bald head adorned by a giant tattoo of a cross. Check out the first trailer above.
Vaughn is still on set in Vancouver with Gibson for Zahler’s next, Dragged Across Concrete, before hitting Italy. When we spoke this week, he extolled Zahler’s virtues. “This director is so unique and so talented and such an interesting guy in that he’s very strong in a lot of different professions that complement each other.”
Zahler has worked as screenwriter, cinematographer and animator — and he’s in a death metal band, Vaughn says. The director, who also wrote Brawl, penned original songs for the film including an R&B tune that The O’Jays perform in the movie, Vaughn tells me. “He’s a real artist who’s combining a lot of these talents that serve him well.”
Vaughn had seen Zahler’s feature directing debut, 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, and boarded Brawl after reading the script. “Zahler doesn’t write in a genre,” he says. “He takes all of these elements and cross-pollinates them and tells a unique story.” Bone Tomahawk, says Vaughn, “was unpredictable and very entertaining, so I was willing to go on this journey with him.”
The journey included a lot of “homework,” including a physical transformation and learning action sequences that “are shot in a way like traditional Hong Kong fight movie sequences. It’s almost like kung fu.” The violence is very realistic, and Vaughn says when that action comes, Zahler has “a very specific way of dealing with it. It’s brutal; it puts you in it.”
But there’s substantial character here. “Craig does a lot of backstory and comes at it in the movie,” Vaughn tells me. “He writes a full bio. It’s a luxury. … The characters are moving pieces, and really at the center of it are life questions. That’s what’s really compelling about his pieces.”
Vaughn’s character Bradley is a former boxer who loses his job as an auto mechanic, and his troubled marriage is about to expire. At a crossroads in his life, he feels he has no better option than to work for an old buddy as a drug courier. This improves his situation until the day he finds himself in a gunfight between a group of police officers and his own ruthless allies. When the smoke clears, Bradley is badly hurt and thrown in prison, where his enemies force him to commit acts of violence that turn the place into a savage battleground.
Bradley, Vaughn expands, is a guy who “really had an alcohol problem and as a belief system falls into Christianity. He’s a flawed, complicated guy, and he wants to connect on some level. He’s really being challenged when the movie starts; there are obstacles and challenging situations. We find him at a teetering point.”
Vaughn calls Brawl “a morality tale.” Bradley makes a choice to create the life he wants, “but he doesn’t necessarily have the means at his fingertips.”
Ultimately, says the star, “The rub of the film is that it’s an original voice. This is a defiant filmmaker who is really telling a story he wants to tell” and who doesn’t compromise. “He’s a real genuine person and doesn’t come from a place of trying to be someone. Every now then you find a unique filmmaker. … In this time it’s unbelievable.”
Vaughn marvels that producer Dallas Sonnier mortgaged his house to do Bone Tomahawk — a Western that was shot in 21 days. “I don’t know how they pulled that off. We shot Swingers in 21 days, and this had horses!”
Brawl is produced by Assemble Media, Cinestate, IMG Films and XYZ Films. XYZ is handling international sales. RLJ Entertainment releases in domestic theaters October 6. The film goes out on-demand October 13.