Selections from this week’s Blu-ray releases can be found below in this ongoing weekly summary of reviews. Click on any of the following titles to navigate directly to that review. This week’s releases include: Vince Vaughn’s wild and glorious grindhouse ode Brawl in Cell Block 99, the Arnold Schwarzenegger-like action mockumentary Killing Gunther, and cult director Joe Lynch’s Mayhem.
Distributor: RLJ Entertainment
A former boxer named Bradley (Vince Vaughn) loses his job as an auto mechanic, and his troubled marriage is about to expire. At this crossroads in his life, he feels that he has no better option than to work for an old buddy as a drug courier. This vocation improves his situation until the terrible day that 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.
The words “horror-western,” “cannibal tribe,” and “Kurt Russell” left me intensely excited for writer/director Craig Zahler’s directorial debut, Bone Tomahawk. After months of anticipation, finally seeing it was an underwhelming experience. Running at 2 hours and 12 minutes, the first two acts were slowly paced — lots of characters talking to each other and allowing their personalities to rub each other the wrong way. This was Bone Tomahawk’s overall biggest criticism, but it wasn’t something I personally minded, because when you’ve got actors like Russell, Bruce Dern, and Patrick Wilson playing these old west characters speaking to each other in that old west way, it was all very charming — not to mention well written, and very Linklaterish in that conversation realism, even if it didn’t seem to be leading to anything in particular. The third act, however, dramatically changes the tenure of the film, during which Russell and co. finally meet this cannibal tribe, and not everyone makes it out alive. What began as something different and daring ended with very cheap looking sets and graphic violence that kind of came out of nowhere.
Despite that, I made a note of Zahler’s name, largely because of how he approached writing and directing such a left-field kind of story while attracting A-list talent for a genre title. So when his sophomore effort, Brawl in Cell Block 99, began gearing up, I felt that familiar anticipation creeping in.
This time, I was not at all disappointed. On the contrary, it’s incredible — audacious, ballsy, (and daring) — a grindhouse flick that actually feels like a grindhouse flick rather than the gawdy Grindhouse double feature from Tarantino and Rodriguez, or its bastards Hobo with a Shotgun and the Machete series that masquerade as one. From its mythical lead bad-ass (Bradley Thomas, as played by an intimidating Vince Vaughn), to its increasingly depressing prison settings (a popular environment for grindhouse flicks), to its array of cartoonish villains (a perfectly calibrated Don Johnson), Brawl in Cell Block 99 feels like the first film in a long time to not only properly make good on its grindhouse roots, but to present something sincere. What does that mean? It means that while something like Hobo with a Shotgun could be argued as being a fun and frantic experience, it’s not necessarily a good film. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is. It somehow manages to dip its toes into both pools with great success. Its special effects (all practical) are presented as purposely hokey; the level of violence Vaughn’s Bradley commits against his target is so graphic that it almost has to be — extremely realistic effects would have robbed the film from its intended camp value, and sometimes these hokey effects threaten to fly in the face of the otherwise razor-serious tone, but it’s a perfect balancing act; these two at-odds approaches complement each other rather than come to blows. Never in a million years did I think I’d ever see Vaughn and genre favorite Udo Kier sharing the screen — between that and the odd but somehow appropriate R&B/soul-driven soundtrack, Brawl in Cell Block 99 should be scattered and random, but yet it all works. And Udo Kier calmly driving down a quiet suburban street listening to soul is just hilarious to me — don’t ask me why. Perhaps the kidnapped, bound, and gagged pregnant woman and sadistic doctor in the backseat have something to do with the absurdity of the moment.
Far too exact to be coincidental, Brawl in Cell Block 99 also runs at 2 hours and 12 minutes (this must be Zahler’s lucky number), and while he again employs his very deliberate pace, this time it feels like a grand design — something part of the plan; incremental rising action. We already know from the outset that Bradley ends up in a hellish prison landscape, so the first half of the film plays with that, putting him on a path that eventually leads him there. Unlike Bone Tomahawk, the pace here is effectively executed — the film opens with a detectable amount of tension, and slowly builds and builds until those prison bars slam home behind the bald-headed and cross-tattooed Bradley Thomas. (How well Zahler’s craft has improved between his first film to his second has me salivating for this third: called Dragged Across Concrete, the cast includes Mel Gibson, Vaughn, Johnson, and Michael Jai White. All I can say is GIVE THAT TO ME RIGHT NOW.)
Film fans often seem surprised when Vaughn goes dramatic, but he’s played just as many serious roles as he has comedic ones, even having played a serial killer twice — in the horrid Psycho remake and the underrated thriller Clay Pigeons. And if we can thank the boring second season of True Detective for anything, it’s for reintroducing that idea of a serious Vince Vaughn to a wide audience. Vaughn rides that reasonable good will and ups the ante with Bradley Thomas, who makes for one of the best characters he’s ever played, and results in one of his best performances. It’s through his portrayal of his character that you never doubt for one moment the surreal violence he’s able to commit against those who deserve it — and a couple folks who don’t.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is 2017’s best surprise. Don’t miss it.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
- Journey to the Brawl: The Making of Brawl in Cell Block 99
- Beyond Fest Q&A with Cast and Crew
Killing Gunther is a comedy set in the world of contract killers. A group of young, raw, and undisciplined assassins hire a docu-crew at gunpoint to have undeniable proof that they’re the ones who will kill the most infamous hitman of all time, Gunther (Arnold Schwarzenegger). But Gunther is on to them before they know it and makes their lives a living hell, turning the hunters into the prey in a kill-or-be-killed race against time.
I know what you’re doing — me and a lot of other action movie fans. It took us a minute, but we caught on. And even though we grumble about it during our closed-door meetings about you, we always let it go. Every few months when that new movie comes out that features the face of Bruce Willis or Nicolas Cage, or even during our most desperate moments, Steven Seagal, we know in our hearts that there’s a severe disconnect between that prominent manly face on the cover and the amount of screen time he will actually have. We get that a sizeable portion of those films’ budgets go toward securing these marquee names, and can’t possibly afford more than just a few days of shooting with him. We find your marketing approach deceptive and a little slimy, but we were always willing to deal with it.
Until now. Because you’ve gone much too far.
You can tease us with Bruce, or Nic, or — gross — even Steven. But you tease us with Arnold and you’ll draw back a stump.
Don’t do it again.
So yes, before we even get to talking about the merits of Killing Gunther, I want to save anyone the trouble who was only ever interested in this for Arnold: he appears in the final 15 minutes, and that’s it. No brief moments in the opening, or throughout — even when his character allegedly appears, it’s not Arnold playing him. (This will make sense should you ever decide to see it for yourself.) This is something you need to know before you risk disappointing yourself.
Having said that, and even without seeing Arnold for most of the film, Killing Gunther is reasonably entertaining, actually managing to be fairly funny at times. I’m not entirely sure it needed to be presented as a documentary, as it neither adds to (nor, to be fair, takes away from) the final result. The cast is stocked with pretty disparate actors playing pretty disparate characters, all who have their own specialty in killing. Aaron Yoo, in particular, gets a lot of mileage out of his extremely effeminate hitman who literally throws tiny bottles of poison at his target the whole time, while Bobby Moynihan’s explosive expert is an instantly likable and boyish presence. (The way that his character’s arc and that of another also makes for a pretty ballsy political statement if you happen to notice it.)
Honestly, Killing Gunther would have played a lot better had Arnold not been made part of the marketing whatsoever, saving his reveal for the end as a total surprise — something more Wizard of Oz-ish. Whether this is just in my imagination or was purposely designed by writer/director/lead actor Taran Killam, Killing Gunther homages Arnold’s entire action career. Gunther is presented as a mythical figure — “the best there is” — and Killing Gunther plays like a commentary on the current action genre as populated by too many superhero franchises and car-based PG-13ers using flash instead of brawn to earn their place in the action hall of fame. During the finale, Gunther even monologues/admonishes the entire hitman crew (well, those left standing) about how he got to be the best — sheer hard work — while they all thought they could just waltz in and take it without earning it. At that moment, Arnold is basically talking about how he got to achieve such prominent positions throughout his life. Between that, the few scenes where Arnold gets to recite a classic line or two (Arnold, I love you, and this was cute at first, but you need to stop), and by film’s end, which borrows a bit from Bronson’s The Mechanic, it becomes pretty clear that Killing Gunther’s alternate title could have been Honoring Arnold.
As you might expect (and hope), when Arnold finally joins in on the madness, he’s a delight, and you can tell he’s having a grand time taking part in this kind of wackadoo comedy. He curses, he mugs for the camera like a kid, and he willfully slides into…uh…less traditional attire for certain scenes. Him directly addressing the camera doesn’t always work, and some of the comedy doesn’t pan out, but when it does, you’ll be smiling. I was.
Not to mention, if you make it as far as the end, stick around for the credits — you’ll get to hear Arnold sing an original country song called Earthquake Love.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
- Blooper Reel
- Deleted Scenes
Distributor: RLJ Entertainment
Derek Cho (Steven Yeun) is having a really bad day. After being unjustly fired from his job, he discovers that the law firm’s building is under quarantine for a mysterious and dangerous virus. Chaos erupts throughout the office as the victims of the disease begin acting out their wildest impulses. Joining forces with a former client (Samara Weaving) who has a grudge of her own, Derek savagely fights tooth and nail to get to the executives on the top floor and settle the score once and for all.
If you’ve had it with your job, see Mayhem.
If you’ve had it with the state of your country and its awful politicians, see Mayhem.
If you’ve just had it, see Mayhem. It might be one of the most therapeutic movies you see all year.
The plot, unique as it may be, is a hybrid of many different influences: it’s The Raid meets The Firm meets any zombie movie from the last thirty years (but think the pre-Romero definition of zombie — someone brainwashed and without control of their actions). Part horror, part comedy, part action, and part social commentary on the woes of — well, you choose: office culture? Social construction? Wealth disparities? — it’s a wild ride, man. Mayhem seems specific, but it’s weirdly a blank canvas, which can be directly applied to pretty much any situation where an individual becomes tired of being just a cog in a wheel.
Mayhem was directed by Joe Lynch, who hit it big with the unexpectedly successful and popular direct-to-video sequel Wrong Turn 2: Dead End. Since then, as most small-time filmmakers do, he steadily rose through the ranks, attracting some bigger and bigger names for his nutso concepts — Peter Dinklage for the LARPing farce Knights of Badassdom (which I believe Lynch has since disowned thanks to the usual financier meddling) and Everly, the one-location shoot-em-up with Salma Hayek.
Mayhem presents the director at his most unhinged and experimental, but also at his most impressive. However you may feel about Mayhem (personally, I still don’t know), there’s no denying that it’s very well made, boasting a style that’s somewhere between comic book and extreme Asian cinema (which often look and feel the same way). Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead enjoys a leading role and admirably undergoes all the insanity Lynch throws his way — not just in his surroundings but from what the director demands of the character.
One of the best aspects of the film is the electronic musical score by composer Steve Moore, who, thanks to previous films The Guest, Cub, and The Mind’s Eye, is has become the go-to guy for low-budget films yearning for that early John Carpenter sound.
If Joe Lynch has a dedicated audience, Mayhem will definitely not disappoint them. It’s out there — the blackest of horror-comedies with some pretty severe violence; and if the film is successful, the audience will root for Yeun’s Derek Cho while wanting to see everyone else die bloody.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
- Creating Mayhem: The Making of the Film
- Audio commentary with director Joe Lynch, Director of Photography Steve Gainer & Editor Josh Ethier