A former boxer-turned-drug runner lands in a prison battleground after a deal gets deadly.
Can a good man still be considered good even when he is forced to do despicable acts of violence? Also… how many kicks to the head does it take to decapitate a person?
These are the two questions at the center of Brawl In Cell Block 99, S. Craig Zahler’s fantastic exploitation film with art house ambitions and techniques which should tell you exactly the kind of spectacle you’re in for.
Similar to the director’s masterful horror western Bone Tomahawk, this is a story that is set in a harsh world where good intentions and noble people aren’t rewarded. And just as that movie, it’s a slow descent into the ninth circle of hell on earth.
Vince Vaughn has been on a path to reinvent himself from the bumbling fast talking comedian into a dramatic actor and Brawl In Cell Block 99 takes full advantage of this, gifting us with a career best performance as Bradley Thomas, a hardworking and decent man with a violent temper that is forced into horrific situations and places in order to secure his family’s safety.
Using the actor’s imposing, intimidating figure and his grizzled, weary face to its benefit, this is role unlike any he’s ever had. Even when destroying a car or a man’s face with his bare hands, Bradley never loses his dignity, humanity and nobility which form the backbone of his character.
Despite never being a fast paced action thriller, it’s first half may test your patience as it takes its time to slowly set up Bradley’s situation but if you hang in there, you’ll arrive to a tension filled second half which lets Vaughn loose into a series of escalating violent predicaments where his explosive nature and talented fists come into play in interesting and wince inducing ways.
Although Vaughn rightly commands the most screen time, Jennifer Carpenter and Don Johnson deserve a mention as they provide great supporting roles as Bradley’s pregnant wife and a vicious prison Warden, respectively.
Taking its inspiration from 1970’s exploitation films has a seemingly basic story that is heightened by Zahler’s punchy dialogue, beautiful gritty cinematography contrasted with skull crushing violence, groovy – yet minimal – soundtrack and horror tinged third act.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 is a film that I don’t plan on watching again anytime soon but it’s one I won’t be forgetting as well. If you can stomach the graphic violence and brutality, you’ll find a rewarding journey at then end of this hellish path.
It takes a while with its set up but once it gets going there’s no stopping it as it descends further into a hellish vision of violence, brutality and nobility gone wrong. Sporting its exploitation influences proudly on its sleeve, Brawl In Cell Block 99 is a highly disturbing and entertaining film, sporting Vince Vaughn’s best performance to date. Just don’t watch it while you eat.