Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99
Bone Tomahawk is without a doubt one of the best directorial debuts in recent history. Director S. Craig Zahler’s homage to the Westerns of old infused some sick, depraved gore that was entirely unexpected, making it a truly inspired film. Zahler’s latest, Brawl in Cell Block 99, is another take on a familiar genre—the prison film. It takes its sweet time building up its lead, Bradley, played by Vince Vaughn in a powerhouse performance, before we actually see brawling, but when reach those violent delights, Brawl becomes a memorable genre piece, much like Bone Tomahawk.
The film opens with Bradley just trying to do his job as a tow truck driver. But, we can’t help but notice the massive cross tattoo on the back of his bald head. He has all the telltale signs of an ex-con—Vaughn’s transformative performance not only includes his new (lack of) hairdo and Southern fried accent, but a bulky, intimidating demeanor he gives off with each footstep. He is fired from his job, then he finds out his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been having an affair; it’s not a good day for Bradley and he take out his aggression on his wife’s car, dismantling and destroying it piece by piece with his bare hands. Vaughn, for the first time ever, really, uses his stance as a 6′ 5″ monster to its fullest extent. Not only is he bashing car windows into a thousand pieces, he takes those fists and shatters skulls with them, repeatedly.
But wait! Before the brawling, we have to know why Bradley brawls—he’s really just a guy trying to do the right thing for his wife and soon-to-be-born child. He gets into drug smuggling to make some easy cash, but a deal goes south when a pair of criminals he’s assigned with double cross him. The cops show up and, because he’s a good guy, Bradley turns on his two-faced partners, aligning with the cops. This good deed doesn’t exonerate him, but it does places him in a medium security prison, where he quietly plans to serve his time so that he can see his family on the other side. But, he just can’t slip away that easily. A crime boss, upset with Bradley’s actions during the failed drug run, makes sure his time in prison is a living hell.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 spends a lot of time with Bradley and his meditative quest to become a good person, recalling crime flicks from the ‘70s (the soundtrack sure helps, too). We see him genuinely care for his pregnant wife and we’re with him as he tries not to make waves in prison. Vaughn lays on the Southern charm; his dad jokes throughout give him a teddy bear persona. Sure, he breaks bones, but you can’t help but be on this guy’s side—he just wants to be a good husband and father! Leave him alone!
An always welcome face, Udo Kier, plays a super creepy go-between for the men trying to harm Bradley. Don Johnson adds another late-in-his-career sociopathic role as a warden, and Jennifer Carpenter provides a nice twist on the long-cliched woman-in-peril role. But, really, the star of the movie is the violence. Once Bradley is forced to unleash his violent side, the film becomes an all-timer in terms of pure gore effects—and a good amount of them are thankfully practical. Remember that one moment in Bone Tomahawk, you know, the ‘wishbone’ scene? Brawl may not top that, but it certainly comes close with one or two brutal acts of murder. All in all, there is enough in Brawl to not only warrant a watch, but to recommend you see it in a theater, with a raucous crowd. You’ll appreciate the throwback quality and Vaughn’s John Wick-level, action star resurgence, plus you’ll squirm in your seat at the ferocious depravity displayed on screen. Make sure to pick your face off the pavement on your way out.