OldKingClancy posted a MOVIE REVIEW item: 30 days ago

Brawl in Cell Block 99


Directed by: S. Craig Zahler
Written by: S. Craig Zahler
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Udo Kier, Jennifer Carpenter, Marc Blucas, Don Johnson
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller
Official Site:
Plot: A Face-Scrappingly Good Time


A couple years back, S.Craig Zahler burst onto the scene – almost literally – with Bone Tomahawk; a slow-burn Western Horror genre piece with a shockingly violent third act. Now with his second feature Brawl In Cell Block 99 he’s gone in a different direction, bringing a slow-burn Prison genre piece with a shockingly violent third act. Ok so the guy has a style but when the style is this good and this unapologetic you can’t help but be impressed by someone having the balls to go as far as he does and Brawl is another point in his favour.

When former boxer turned tow-truck driver Bradley Thomas is laid off and discovers his wife Lauren is cheating on him on the same day he realises that things need to change; after he and Lauren patch things up and agree to communicate better, Bradley takes up work from his friend Gil to be a drug mule for his operations. 18 months pass and Bradley has moved him and Lauren to a bigger house in preparation for their upcoming baby, things seem good until Gil introduces Bradley to Eleazar, a new business associate requesting Bradley’s assistance in picking up a shipment of cocaine. Despite his caution Bradley and his crew are ambushed by the police and Bradley is sent to The Fridge, a medium security prison for seven years.

While life at The Fridge is tough but forgiving, Bradley tries to settle into the next seven years of his life, that is until Eleazar kidnaps Lauren and tells Bradley that he needs to kill a man called Christopher Bridges at the Redleaf Maximum Security Facility, or else the limbs of his unborn child will be severed and sent to him. With no other choice, Bradley takes the necessary steps to walk into Hell and come out fighting.

Despite the title, it actually takes the majority of the film to get to Cell Block 99; instead the film uses that time to show the descent of Bradley as every step he takes puts him closer and closer to the life he’s trying to avoid. Much like Bone Tomahawk the slow burn beginning allows us to get a better understanding of Bradley and this world he’s in which makes the wait for that third act all the more worth it.

And it is fucking worth it.

While this is Vaughn’s film the supporting cast help to flesh out the world, Lauren is played by Jennifer Carpenter who presents a flawed but strong character, her affair is seen as a mistake brought on by the lack of communication between her and Bradley following a miscarriage and she understands just how important it is that Bradley forgave her and is helping them prepare for their second chance. While she does spend a majority of the time as a hostage it’s in the moments where she’s allowed a chance to break free that shows she’s learnt a lot from her husband.

Dion Mucciacito plays Eleazar, a drug baron with enough power and influence to control things even from within the shit-encrusted walls of Cell Block 99. While his calm, collected and psychotic demeanour are nothing new they still made for a chilling villain, especially with his crew including the just as chilling Udo Keir as The Placid Man, the guy handling things on the outside, and a Korean Abortionist who doesn’t say much but his dejected reaction to not being allowed to cripple an unborn child is one of the best examples of black comedy I’ve seen for a while. What’s best about Eleazar though is just how quickly his tune changes once he realises just how much he’s underestimated Bradley, it’s nice to get that much fear in the voice of a real asshole.

Secondary Villain goes to Don Johnson as Warden Tuggs, head of Redleaf and sadistic prick, unlike Eleazar who control power over those who work for him, Tuggs holds power over people he considers scum and treats them accordingly. There is a slight element of enjoyment in his work but you get the sense he’s doing what he feels is justice against the worst kinds of people, case in point, Cell Block 99 is a dark, dank, shit-stained, glass-covered hell-hole where Bradley is forced to wear a shock belt to keep him in line. It’s fun to see Johnson take on a role like this and while I wouldn’t say he’s having fun with it, this is definitely new territory for him and he fits the role well.

Finally of course we have Vince Vaughn as Bradley; this isn’t the first dramatic role Vaughn as taken, with Domestic Disturbance being a similarly threatening performance, but this is still a very different type of Vaughn than we’ve seen before. What’s especially of note about Bradley – not Brad as he reminds a few people – is that while he is very skilled at violence, he does what he can to avoid it, telling one prison guard he’d rather knit than hurt people who don’t deserve it. It’s that element that makes Vaughn’s performance more than just a brute, he keeps a calm head and a sharp wit under most circumstances which means when he does break out the violence it’s as sudden and shocking to the other characters as it is to the audience. Between this and True Detective I’m liking the more serious turn Vaughn has taken and Bradley looks to be one of his most impressive performances.

Like Bone Tomahawk though, it’s Zahler who’s the real standout, for a guy who’s taking pointers for the grindhouse genre films of old, his attention to character detail and world building shows that he knows how to add meat to the blood and gore. Right from the start which sees Bradley destroying his wife’s car after learning of her affair but willing to sit down and talk with her tells us everything we need to know about the character in a very efficient and entertaining way. The slow build-up to Cell Block 99 might disappoint people who just want to see the good ol’ ultra-violence but Zahler understands the necessity of patience, going straight to 99 wouldn’t have the same impact as seeing Bradley sent to The Fridge then to Redleaf to see the differences between the two and just how far he’s going to protect his family. As I said earlier Bradley doesn’t like hurting people who don’t deserve it but being as proficient in violence as he is, when he needs to he can make it fucking hurt.

And goddamn does he deliver, the entire final half-hour of this flick is focussed on the titular brawl and Zahler hits hard. Some have compared it to The Story Of Ricky which I can see, but Story of Ricky is outlandish and often ridiculous whereas here Zahler is going for a far more realistic portrayal of violence, his use of long takes to capture the slow, often awkward nature of fighting allows every punch to be felt by the audience – given the size of Vaughn it makes a lot more sense for him to be a tank type of fighter rather than a quick-handed martial arts master. The realism also extends to just how gruesome the film can get, it doesn’t reach the levels of the Bisection from Bone Tomahawk but for genre fans we’ve got broken limbs, smashed jaws, gouged eyes, ripped heads and a particularly disturbing scene involving a face and concrete.

Two films in and I’m excited to see what Zahler comes up with next because Brawl In Cell Block 99 proves that he’s not a one-trick pony and actually has a style worth keeping an eye on. The combination of brutal, unflinching violence with a slow-burn story of morality and a strong dramatic turn from Vince Vaughn have confirmed him to be one of the most interesting Genre Directors around, this might hit a little too hard to recommend it to most people but it’s definitely one for fans of the grind-house prison dramas to see a modern take on the style.


Other reviews of this film: TreyTheMovieMan (8/10) , MonsterZeroNJ (7/10) > Display all

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