When you call your film Brawl in Cell Block 99, you really are setting up certain expectations. Specifically – fighting in prison. Well I can categorically tell you that it meets this expectation in the most viscerally brutal fashion imaginable. That it also achieves this without a single fight, or scene in prison, until its second hour, only adds to the achievement of this remarkable film.
Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk), the film has only the barest (broken) bones of a plot, but that’s all it needs to successfully ram itself into your face. Vince Vaughn, playing massively against type, is Bradley, a tow truck driver with a chequered past trying to make an honest living. Lured back to a life of crime after a double dose of bad news, he gets his life back on track. The first hour of the film develops slowly, letting us get to know Bradley, and his pregnant wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter).
Those expecting cheap grindhouse thrills for 80 minutes will have their patience tested by this film. Director Zahler has loftier ambitions for his sophomore feature. He invests so much time in character, and the complex dynamics of Bradley and Lauren’s marriage, that you really do care about their fate. The carnage which follows would be otherwise meaningless.
Bradley inevitably gets caught up in a deal which goes horribly wrong, and finds himself in prison. All he wants is to be a model prisoner, keep his head down, and get out before missing too much of his unborn child’s life. Then he gets a visit from a man (Udo Kier) who makes what is perhaps the most sinister threat in movie history. If Bradley doesn’t do what he asks, then the threat will become a reality. And then the fighting begins.
Early in the film we are given a hint to the ferocious violence lurking within Bradley. After getting some bad news form Lauren he tells his wife to go inside, and then proceeds to punch her car to pieces. It is an extraordinary sequence, and one that pays off incredibly when those massive fists are hitting flesh instead of metal and glass. The second hour of Brawl in Cell Block 99 is an incredible display of unrelenting brutality. Strong stomachs are most definitely required.
Bradley is moved into maximum security, where the guards look like special forces goons, the warden (Don Johnson) resembles a Cartel boss, and the titular cell block itself is like a dark corner of hell. We are now in full grindhouse-meets-Cronenbergian body horror territory.
Vince Vaughn is on sensational form, and this performance could very well reveal where the rest of his career might be heading. His hulking frame and ex-boxers face, so often incongruous to his comedic persona, find a real outlet in Brawl. That cool skinny dude from Swingers disappeared a long time ago. He’s looked like a tough guy for years. Now he’s starting to act like one. The charismatic, fast-talking asshole is replaced by a brooding, quiet, intimidating beast. It’s a thrilling transformation, and central to the film’s success.
Vaughn and Zahler are working together on the ominously titled (after you’ve seen this film) Dragged Across Concrete, due for release late in 2018. Can. Not. Wait.
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Marc Blucas, Don Johnson Director: S. Craig Zahler Writer: S. Craig Zahler Released By: Universal Pictures Certificate: 18 Duration: 127 mins Release Date: 26th December 2017