Film Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99

Brutal and surprising

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Don't let its grindhouse and exploitation trappings fool you, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a fantastic film that puts Vince Vaughn to great use in a way you'd least expect: as a take-no-prisoners asskicker. A film that depicts a slow unraveling of a man's life that suddenly explodes into bone-crunching madness and gruesome violence in its third act, Brawl in Cell Block 99 will change the way you look at Vince Vaughn forever. Minor spoilers ahead...

Vince Vaughn is a mountain of a man. Ever since his first major role in Jon Favreau's Swingers, most of his roles have been motormouthed wisecrackers that speak a mile a second. Those characters have always done a great job of camouflaging his massive 6'5" frame - but after watching Brawl in Cell Block 99, you will never overlook his physicality again. Vaughn plays Bradley Thomas, a man of principle trying to shake his criminal past with honest work. When circumstances corner him back into a life of crime, things inevitably turn sour in a job gone awry that leaves one man dead and our protagonist in a medium security prison. His pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) is kidnapped in retribution for the botched job, and Thomas is blackmailed to murder an inmate in a different, maximum security, facility. 

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a film that almost defies classification. Its B-movie title belies its intelligence and depth, and those going into the movie expecting cheap thrills and prison-break spectacle will not find what they're looking for. Instead, director S. Craig Zahler (in a follow-up to his impressive debut Bone Tomahawk) expertly deconstructs a character and tells a gripping story of a man pushed to his limits. Vince Vaughn superbly plays against type in Brawl in Cell Block 99, and his Bradley Thomas is a revelation. In a brilliant scene early in the film that works simply because it subverts audience expectations, Bradley discovers that his wife has been unfaithful. Seething with a quiet but palpable rage, he instructs his wife to go inside their house. It's here that we first get a taste of Bradley's propensity for brutal violence, but not in the way we would expect. Instead of conforming to what we would predict from a giant, bald, and tattooed ex-con, he brutally and violently destroys...her car - dismantling it piece by piece with his raging fists. He then calmly goes inside to join his wife and compassionately talks to her about accepting responsibility, where they went wrong as a couple, and reconciliation.

Relatively quiet moments compose the framework of Brawl in Cell Block 99, and even when Bradley is in prison, the film takes its time to build its conflicts naturally and with patience. However, when the going gets tough, all contemplation goes out the window, and Brawl incorporates some of the starkest, bone-crunching violence ever committed to film. Those in the audience worried that they were tricked into sitting through a 25th Hour-type character piece will suddenly be pleased by the gore and violence served up by Zahler and company. If you're squeamish, particularly to trauma to the human head, I would suggest you avoid Brawl in Cell Block 99 at all costs. 

Coming in at a 132 minute runtime, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is as long as it needs to be, and Zahler's pacing is a real asset for a film that could have been uneven and lethargic. The script introduces jolts of energy at exactly the right times, and interesting supporting characters keep the goings taut and lean. Rounding out the cast with maximum scenery chewing are Don Johnson (Miami Vice, Nash Bridges) as the sadistic warden Tuggs, and Udo Kier (Melancholia, Downsizing) as the mysterious Placid Man. Brawl also utilizes underrated actors such as Marc Blucas (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and the imposing Geno Segers (Banshee) well, with small but fun roles. S. Craig Zahler is two for two in my book with his directorial efforts, and I for one can't wait to see what he does next.


GRADE: A-