RLJE FILMS (2017)
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas, Tom Guiry
S. Craig Zahler returns after the hard-hitting Bone Tomahawk with the gruelling Brawl in Cell Block 99. It’s a modern-day Grindhouse flick, complete with a naff title (“brawl”) and the lead powerhouse played by…Vince Vaughn? What the? Fear not, however.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is the epitome of “gritty”. It’s dirty looking, it’s dark, it’s brutal, it runs at its own pace…
…and it’s bloody good.
Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) isn’t having the best of days. Laid off from his job, he returns home to the revelation that his wife, Lauren (Carpenter), has been having a three-month affair with another man. Sending her into the house, Bradley takes out his rage on her car, ripping pieces off here and there and leaving it very much out of action. However, his conversation with his wife is calm and collected and they decide to give their marriage another go. In order to make ends meet, Bradley turns to his friend, Gil (Blucas), for employment as a drug runner.
Eighteen months pass and clearly, the drug running is a solid earner. Living in a much nicer house and with a daughter, playfully referred to as ‘koala’, on the way, things are on the up. Gil makes a deal with new associates and when the risky drug deal goes south, Bradley is arrested and sentenced to a seven-year stretch at a medium-security prison. Counting down the days until his daughter is born, Bradley receives a visit from an unknown guest who informs him that due to Bradley’s actions at the botched job, his boss lost a lot of money and expects payback – Bradley must get transferred to a maximum-security facility to take out a particular prisoner, otherwise his unborn daughter will have limbs severed by a Korean abortionist and Lauren will be no more. Over to you, Bradley.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is akin to the string on a stick of dynamite, ever so slowly burning towards its explosive end. The movie takes well over an hour before we get to any prison scenes, let alone the titular Cell Block 99 – the “prison within a prison” according to the nefarious Warden Tuggs (Johnson). The first half of the movie is a slow, character drama that intentionally takes it time to ensure we become invested in Bradley’s character and his devotion to his small family – after all, he is a 6’ 5” shaved-headed, tattooed, ex-alcoholic beast of a man, where first impressions may not be warm and cuddly. A sharp script and solid directing ensure this is successful, allowing the darker second half to receive greater weight because of it.
Vince Vaughn is terrifying. Literally is. The camerawork ensures Vaughn’s looming frame is highlighted and prevalent, how those small prison beds carry his timber is impressive. This is Vaughn’s career-best performance, simply put, he is sensational. Immersing himself in the character, his cold, brutal demeanour is so far removed from the popular idea of him, he becomes almost unrecognisable. It’s not just the brawling that he nails, it’s the restrained, quieter, and more contemplative moments that shape his character and deliver one of the performances of the year.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a ruthless movie. As mentioned, the dirty visual aesthetic walks hand-in-hand with the rest of the movie and its elements. The fight scenes are visceral and fierce, there’s no in-fight shaky cam operating here, the shots are near-static to allow the bludgeoning, realistic battles to be the focus. Every bone snap or crushed face is ferociously framed and conveyed – I admit to yelping at one snapped appendage. Crucially, the movie is not just simply torture porn, thanks to the writing of Bradley’s character and the situations he finds himself in. He’s a man with heart, he assaults Lauren’s car but not her, instead insisting they talk about what’s happened between them and his desire for a family. There’s something about the character that ensures he isn’t just a one-dimensional wrecking machine, he’s developed as a caring man under the rough exterior.
There may be very minor issues with the pacing, however the justification for it is that there are no real ‘filler’ sections, every moment serves a purpose – whether to highlight the horrific conditions within Cell Block 99, Bradley’s state-of-mind or the claustrophobic entry into the prison facility, had the movie been shorter it would have felt rushed. The final shot is horrendously displayed, and I only imagine it’s a throwback to the dodgy effects of the ‘70s – I really hope it is!
Brawl in Cell Block 99 came as a surprise, as I had been expecting a simple ‘tough guys in jail who beat each other up’ story, however, instead I got a strong character drama with soul and wince-inducing violence. Vaughn’s unrelentingly great performance anchors a movie that will engage you for every minute of its runtime. Surprisingly very, very good.
Just don’t call him Brad.
October 24th 2017