Three decades ago a teenage Vince Vaughn launched his acting career by landing a wholesome Chevy commercial, a first taste of success that sent the Chicago kid to Los Angeles with his sights on Hollywood.
In this weekend's unflinching prison picture "Brawl in Cell Block 99" the actor, now 47, comes full circle in a way, channeling a disquieting combination of blue-collar rage and hurt into his fists — pummeling a parade of prison guards, fellow criminals, and one unsuspecting automobile — with a ferocity audiences have never seen before.
This new Vaughn — silent and intimidating, world-weary and smirk-less, a metric ton of power coursing through his imposing 6-foot-5 frame — demonstrates his capabilities early on in one memorable, paradigm-shifting scene: Moments after being laid off and learning of his wife's infidelity, he dismantles an innocent car with his bare hands, beating it to pieces and ripping its metal frame apart, and with it, the wise-cracking brand that's come to define Vaughn's career in comedies from "Swingers" to "Wedding Crashers."
There's a forceful poetry in the juxtaposition given that, until a few years ago, Vaughn seemed terminally stuck in a rut of mainstream comedy fare of diminishing returns.
"When I first started I did a lot of independent film," Vaughn reflected last month in Austin, where "Brawl" premiered to raves at the genre film-focused Fantastic Fest. "When Todd Phillips came to me with 'Old School' the studio said, 'I don't know if he can be funny.' You kind of get on a run of doing those, falling into different types of PG-13, softer versions of the comedies ..."
"It drifted into that," he added, clear-eyed and frank. "Maybe I got a little comfortable doing things too much in the same direction."
In the last few years he took pains to alter course, taking roles outside his comedic wheelhouse: The Army sergeant who begrudgingly comes to respect Andrew Garfield's pacifist ways in Mel Gibson's WWII war pic "Hacksaw Ridge," an ambitious career criminal desperate to go legit in HBO's "True Detective."
In "Brawl" Vaughn brings to life Bradley Thomas, a brutal antihero with family on his mind and a tattoo of a cross on his head, whose unwavering moral code sends him hurtling into a life of crime, incarceration and through a Dante's Inferno of ultraviolent R-rated exploitation movie trials.
"'Hacksaw' was a great opportunity," he said of pal Gibson's Oscar-winning war film. "['Brawl'] was a tremendous opportunity."
It's the emotion behind his haunted eyes that brings a fundamentally different side of Vaughn to the fore in the second feature from novelist-filmmaker S. Craig Zahler, whose 2015 "Bone Tomahawk" memorably married the verbose strain of the western genre with some of the goriest horror shocks in years.
"I needed someone who was daunting, but also an interesting choice," said Zahler, who wrote Bradley as a silent roadblock of a man out of place in the modern world. He's in constant dialogue with his own impulses and listens to the struggle-soul sounds of musicians like the O'Jays (who recorded original songs written by Zahler for the film).
He stalks his world internally measuring the consequences of his actions — whether running illicit drugs to provide for his wife and unborn child, or opting to mercifully and methodically snap the arm of his enemy rather than kill him. Which he can, of course, do when necessary, and does frequently in "Brawl"'s deliberately composed, bone-crunching fight sequences.
"If I saw [Vaughn in character] on the street I don't even know if I'd think he's a nice guy," laughed Zahler.
Vaughn says Bradley — a Southerner out of place, an addict treading sobriety, a coiled beast acting out of necessity — is a product of American cross-culturalism; deliberately contradictory. And as physically demanding as the "Brawl" shoot was, with Zahler's long-take fight scenes requiring precision and endurance from the boxing and jujitsu-trained Vaughn, it's the complex emotionality that plays out with every punch and head stomp, that made the role particularly special.
"I still saw this as a character piece," said Vaughn. "I think it's interesting that you set him up that he doesn't want to hurt people. You make that clear. There's no joy in it; he's got to do this, which is what makes it so vicious. He's very deliberate about what he's going to do."
Arriving in a post-election maelstrom of heightened tensions and violent clashes fueled by political divides and brazen racism, "Brawl" has come under fire from some viewers who read it as an uber-violent exploitation flick in which thinly drawn African American, Latino and Asian characters find themselves disproportionately on the receiving end of Vaughn's blue-collar, economic anxiety-fueled, righteously deadly justice.
Zahler found himself fielding similar criticism over the optics of "Bone Tomahawk," in which white heroes fall prey to a band of grotesquely brutal native cannibals. The stomach-churning violence those villains wrought, he points out, is meant to be traumatic; the violence in "Brawl," which places its audience in the shoes of Vaughn's bygone-era bruiser, is intended to be cathartic.
"I've read interpretations of 'Bone Tomahawk' that are flat out not my intention," said Zahler, "and there are interpretations that are 100% correct. I'm not really a political person; my father's hardcore right wing and my mother's hardcore left wing, and I'm happy to write both sides and characters who [represent] both sides. To me that makes a three-dimensional world. People can interpret it the way they want, and I encourage that. It's more important that you ask those questions than that I answer them."
Vaughn is more elusive when it comes to the film's politics. Curiosity over the subject has only been amplified by the actor's own conservative political views, as well as the new film he just finished shooting for Zahler, "Dragged Across Concrete," in which he and Gibson star as disgraced cops who turn to crime after their brutal methods get them suspended from the force.
What he will say is that the moral deliberations in "Brawl" — and the consequences Bradley faces as the karmic scales balance out — are what he finds fascinating, comparing the character's violent actions and dark descent to the Grimm fairy tales he tells his own children.
"It's not right, it's uncomfortable, and he knows that — and he's responsible for it," said Vaughn. "Therein lies the messiness that for me makes it so entertaining."