7.5 out of 10
Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas
Jennifer Carpenter as Lauren Thomas
Udo Kier as Placid Man
Don Johnson as Warden Tuggs
Tom Guiry as Wilson
Marc Blucas as Gil
Clark Johnson as Detective Watkins
Geno Segers as Roman
Rob Morgan as Jeremy
Fred Melamed as Mr. Irving
Directed by S. Craig Zahler
Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is a big man, not easily provoked, but obviously coming from a world of crime but trying to do good by his wife. When events force his hand and he has to dip his toe back into the criminal underground, he is confident that he won’t let it stain him or his wife and unborn child. When a drug courier deal goes south, while Bradley acts nobly and manages to save the lives of some police, he’s also no snitch, and manages to get himself sentenced to time in a minimum security prison. But when those drug dealers, with the Placid Man (Udo Kier, fun and creepy as usual) threaten his family, Bradley has no choice but to go deeper into the prison system, into a place where only the worst prisoners reach – Cell Block 99.
Like most movies in the prison genre, there’s not a whole lot that is complicated about S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99. This is one of those movies that delivers exactly on what it promises – brutal action violence, fight scenes with some pretty terrific choreography and cinematography, and general badass behavior from our hero. Most people are used to seeing Vaughn in more ligher, comedic roles, but he’s been taking turns exploring the darker side in recent years, and you can be sure that you’ve probably never seen Vince Vaughn quite like this before. He’s a slow, methodical man, not in any hurry to get where he’s going, but woe to those who try to keep him from getting there, full of Southern charm and a fierce loyalty. If Bradley screws up, you can be sure he won’t screw up in the same way again. He’s a fascinating character and Vaughn imbues him with an inner life that isn’t obviously apparent at first. He has a nobility about him that feels forged from a life of bad choices and experiences, and a refusal to compromise his values, even if those values don’t always lead to the most ethical choices.
But this is an exploitation movie after all (or it surely wants to be), and Zahler doesn’t spare with the gore, the violence, or the action. He’s also not one who thinks the destination is more important than the journey – like Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is deliberately paced, which for some may be a fancy way of saying slow, but that’s not the case at all. This is a cooking pot slowly being brought to a boil, and Zahler wants us to experience everything as Bradley experiences it, as he in almost literal ways descends into the fiery circles of Hell itself. In an odd way, Zahler wants us to relish the moments between the violence, so when the violence comes it is even more effective. This is very similar to a lot of exploitation movies – they didn’t have the budget to show all the gratuitous action, so they make you savor the tension until it happens. His first prison seems easy enough, until he has to make a choice and gets himself placed in an even worse prison when his family is put in danger. There he meets Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson), a sadistic, brutal man who isn’t operating with oral clarity himself.
Zahler doesn’t use a lot of fancy camerawork during the fight scenes, which I especially appreciated. These fights are pieces of the plot falling into the movie, and Zahler wants us to see everything without edit flashes or intense in-your-face shots. He is also unsparing with the gore, as many body parts and faces get slammed, punched, broken, and pummeled. There is a lot of 1970s cinema in Brawl in Cell Block 99‘s DNA, and if you squint hard enough, you can see the title, perhaps on a marquee in 1970s Times Square, along with movies like Death Wish or Shaft. Zahler even goes so far as to sing his own songs on the soundtrack. There’s a homemade quality to Cell Block that, when it’s not punching its way through something, is charming in its way.
This is an unapologetic guy movie, something I can see playing in constant rotation on Spike TV, if not for the over-the-top violence. It’s also very much an audience movie, and seeing this with a bunch of rowdy festival goers definitely added to the experience, but I imagine that it will play similarly for a lot of people. Brawl in Cell Block 99 doesn’t have a whole lot on its mind – it wants to entertain in old fashioned ways, and succeeds on that quite a bit. It can be cruel and offensive at moments, but it also knows what kind of movie it is and makes no apologies. I imagine that if the MTV Movie Awards nominates this, it’ll be for best fight scene, whether it’s Vaughn with prison guards, inmates, or even a car. This isn’t an ambitious movie – it just sets out to do what it wants to do, and achieves it.