Vince Vaughn gets a bad wrap. The towering Chicagoan, who broke through as the silky playboy with the machine gun-delivery in 1996’s Swingers, has often been seen as a one-trick pony, hired again and again to recreate the smarmy smart aleck he played in films like Old School, Wedding Crashers and The Break-Up. Audiences were more than happy to buy into Vaughn’s jocular alter-ego for a decade—until they weren’t (see: The Dilemma). In his 2015 Playboy Interview, Vaughn remarked, “I don’t live my life according to how other people see my career or whatever…The truth is, I don’t know that I ever had a plan.”
Like all actors who get stuck in a proverbial rut, Vaughn tried to pivot when he signed on to play the gangster-turned-business man Frank Semyon in HBO’s ill-fated second season of True Detective. Audiences rejected Vaughn as a pensively brooding criminal and many observers were left wondering where the actor would go from there.
Enter Brawl in Cell Block 99, a brutal genre piece from director Craig Zahler (2015’s critically lauded Bone Tomahawk) that has turned heads on the festival circuit for its bone-crunching violence. In what’s essentially his first leading role since 2015’s highly forgettable Unfinished Business, Vaughn crackles as a hardscrabble auto mechanic who finds himself in prison, forced to bludgeon his way through inmate after inmate to save his family. It’s a gut-punch of a movie, made in the spirit of the grindhouse films of the 1970s, and features a standout performance from Don Johnson as a sadistic warden.
We caught up with Vaughn and Johnson at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival to discuss the American prison system, the importance of original storytelling in the age of sequels and remakes and when—if ever—it’s okay to throw a punch.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 evokes the spirit of the grindhouse films of the 1970s and 1980s. Was that part of the appeal for you guys, in terms of how purely cinematic this film is?
VINCE VAUGHN: I had the benefit of seeing Craig’s first film, Bone Tomahawk, which I really loved. He’s such a talented filmmaker. He wrote all the songs, his dialogue is tremendous and his detail to the action is very specific. He’s just very unique. One of the things I love is that these are real characters who you spend time with and invest in, and then the fighting and the violence are so extreme. But it all kind of goes together. Normally, directors paint in just one tone, so I’m not used to seeing films like this, especially when all the storylines start colliding. When the violence comes, it’s both fun and cringeworthy.
It pulsates with the same kind of kinetic energy that made movies like Raging Bull feel so urgent.
VAUGHN: I agree. Part of it is that Craig doesn’t try and fit into a box. A lot of filmmakers have a box they have to check before they get a greenlight. He doesn’t. He wouldn’t agree on a running time, he wouldn’t agree on a rating. He’s an original voice, which makes it a unique experience. You don’t have someone going through a notes process and being driven towards what might be more expected.
DON JOHNSON: I don’t mind working when I go to see a movie. What I don’t like is being condescended to as an audience member, and I think that happens more often than not these days. From the trailer to the experience, you’re programmed to expect something, and then you get delivered that thing. There’s nothing to do. It’s the laziest kind of endeavor and totally unsatisfying. Most of the time I go to a studio movie, I always walk out of that film feeling unsatisfied. But with Zahler’s pictures, I walk out and think “Okay, that was an experience. That was bold and it took chances.”
Vince, was it liberating to make a film that didn’t have the same box-office pressures as some of your more mainstream efforts?
VAUGHN: When I did Swingers, we were just telling that story. We didn’t know that they would ask us to change anything about it. That’s what made it unique. This is Zahler’s time of doing stuff that he finds interesting, so it’s nice to be a part of that with him. But to me it was only about liking the authenticity of his story and his ability to tell that story. That’s what made me say. “I have to be a part of this.” I was willing to do all the work that it took because I was so excited to be a part of it.
There’s no great piece of art that isn’t a love story.
That included getting into shape and tapping back into your boxing roots.
VAUGHN: All of those things. I needed to do that in a way that was undeniable because the character demanded it. Like all of us, I grew up looking for the albums or the movies or the plays or the books that were cool. That’s the fun of it. That’s what led us to what we do now. When it becomes about something different, it’s not as fun. This to me was like a lifeline. We’re not looking to fit in or be liked or working from a business plan.
If you approach a movie purely as a financial endeavor, does it dull the experience of making it?
VAUGHN: You like to see something you do succeed, but if your drive is marketing from the get go, it’s different than doing something that’s unapologetic. Clearly Zahler’s not catering to be a four-quadrant movie. He’s telling us a defined story about people who are in an extreme place. To me it’s a Greek myth. It’s a morality tale.
Don, even your character to me represents the laws of the universe. This is where you’ve chosen to come and this is what you’re up against.
JOHNSON: And that’s why I don’t think my character takes any pleasure in the way he treats Vince’s character. It’s just the natural order of things.
You looked like you were having a lot of fun putting Vince’s character through hell in this film.
JOHNSON: I love Vince, actually. The character as written is an efficient manager of a certain type of person. I don’t think he takes joy in it, but he certainly doesn’t not like what he does. He seems to be pretty comfortable.
Do you ever marvel at prison workers and how they can switch it on and off?
VINCE: Well, it reminds of The Stanford Prison Experiment. Even the kids role-playing in that guard/prisoner dynamic started to abuse each other. Whenever there’s power, there’s these dynamics that play out that are not always constructive.
Did you guys have to delve deep into the American prison system in preparation?
JOHNSON: I have. I went to San Quentin and Chino to research a role and stayed there for several hours. I wanted to stay overnight, but they wouldn’t let me because it wasn’t safe. I’ve also gone as a celebrity, to speak to the inmates. I’m familiar with that world. Curiously, prison life is a microcosm of the outside. Everything is very small but very valued. It’s subjugation any way you look at it.
VAUGHN: It’s survival of the fittest.
JOHNSON: It’s the best place to see faces of people you don’t want to see and get a good criminal education.
Do you worry about the violence in this film being too gratuitous?
VAUGHN: What happens is the characters are so built up, so you’re invested in these real relationships. The turning point for me in reading the screenplay was when my character caught his wife cheating on him after he gets fired, destroys a car, loses control emotionally, but then the conversation that happens with his wife afterwards is surprising. Here’s two hurt people who clearly come from a lot of pain and mistakes and they found this little bond and it makes you root for them. By the time you get to the violence, you really understand that he’s doing it because his back’s against the wall, and the only reason he’s doing something against his code is to protect his family. The violence is grounded and connected to the story. Though it’s very extreme, it serves a purpose.
People say that violence never solves anything, but I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think it’s something you want to go to quickly and readily. I think people engage in conflict in general far more often when it’s ego-based, but if your family is in jeopardy there’s a time to meet force with force. Sometimes the end justifies the means.
JOHNSON: It’s a love story. The whole thing is a love story. There’s no great piece of art that isn’t a love story.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is in theaters this Friday.