If you’re a bloodthirsty sicko like me, Brawl in Cell Block 99 might be the movie for you. It’s the follow up to writer/director, S. Craig Zahler’s stellar 2015 debut, Bone Tomahawk. Instead of the old west, he brings us to present day where we follow Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn), a man who loses his job and turns to drug smuggling so he can support his wife and his unborn daughter. However, after a job goes south, he ends up in jail, and finds himself facing a problem. Turns out, the people he screwed over at his last gig now has his wife in their possession, and they need him to do something while he’s in jail.
I’ll spare you more plot details, but let’s just say it involves a lot of brawling.
Zahler has a way of telling his story that I find very evocative and idiosyncratic. While he is ultimately making seemingly simple genre exercises, he allows for the characters to breathe. He has a sly sense of humor, and he builds them up as humans that we can relate to on some level. That is, just before he then kicks the story into gear and proceeds to break those very characters down. Call it a formula, if you will, but it’s effective as hell. The film takes its time as we get to understand the kind of guy Bradley is, how he is with his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), and the things he’s willing to do for them. It’s made pretty clear he’s hardly a role model, but he is compelling and frankly, he’s such a naturally imposing figure, it’s damn near impossible to take your eyes off of him.
This part of the film is full of various turns where we realize Bradley is being manipulated and pulled into several different directions, but all leading to an inevitable conclusion. And once Zahler puts everything into motion, he brings in the violence, and he practically grabs you by the throat, and doesn’t let go until it’s over. The second half of the film is filled largely with sequences of gruesome, bloody ultraviolence, and it is absolutely bananas. If you’ve seen Bone Tomahawk, it wouldn’t surprise you when I tell you that Zahler does not hold back when it comes to the violence. Each punch, snap, crack, splatter, and smash hits you with the fury of a thousand hammers (thanks due to some amazing sound design). It’s the kind of stuff packed midnight movie audiences live for.
Brawl wouldn’t necessarily feel out of place among other wannabe neo-grindhouse stuff, but unlike many of those, Brawl lacks a certain wink-to-the-camera attitude. This presents a lot of troubling imagery, meanspiritedness, unabashed machismo, and its fair share of Problematic™ elements, but it wholly owns them, and isn’t interested in pandering to anyone. It’s knows exactly what it is, what it wants to be, and it executes it damn near perfectly.
While he’s known mostly for comedy, Vince Vaughn has done his fair share of darker material, such as the Psycho remake, The Cell, or even recently with his turn in True Detective Season 2. It’s not shocking to see him in something like Brawl, but what is shocking is how utterly terrifying he can make himself look with just a cold distant stare, even before his giant fists start flying. The film also has a top notch supporting cast of quirky characters including, aside from Jennifer Carpenter, the likes of Don Johnson as a cruel prison warden, and the always delightful Udo Kier as the sleazy associate that acts as the middleman between Bradley and the people who have taken his wife.
With a title as bold and straightforward as Brawl in Cell Block 99, I’d say what you see is what you get, but there is so much to the film in terms of its craft, the performances, the way it plays with its audience that it really becomes something to behold. It’s certainly not for everybody, but it is a film made with a distinctive voice and a sense of precision, even when it might – at first – feel meandering. It has a sharp and pitch black sense of humor that keeps things from getting too oppressive, and the moments of violence are, weirdly enough, a joy to watch unfold. You’ll applaud at the sheer spectacle of its savagery while also wincing your eyes, and shrieking in cries of shock and horror. To do that isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, and S. Craig Zahler really cements himself as an incredible talent worth your attention.