Brawl in Cell Block 99 has been making the rounds in a few cities and On Demand. This is a film that has been critically praised and its star, Vince Vaughn has been tossed around as a possible contender for Best Actor. Trust me, he will not win for this film. Not because he doesn’t deserve it, but his character is so dark and the material for this film is so saturnine, the Academy would never go for it. Generally speaking, they try to avoid performances and films that are so esoteric that not many relate to. I can think only of Denzel Washington’s Oscar win for his performance in Training Day, as a corrupt and murderous police officer, to be the exception. I am sure there might be a couple of others but not many.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a violent, bloody and extremely graphic film about Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) who has just lost his job with a wrecker towing service. He and his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) are both reformed alcoholic and drug addicts who found each other at the bottom of their lives. They took comfort in each other’s emptiness, supported each other and are now married. Now, pregnant with their first child and Bradley, needing to find a source of income, foolishly decides to go back to his old drug boss, Gil (Marc Blucas) and become a drug mule.
When a deal goes horribly wrong and Bradley is arrested and is sentenced to seven years in prison. The first prison is no cakewalk but he gets his own cell and it is relatively clean. Should be easy enough, being it is a prison and all. You could do far worse. He is visited by a representative of the Mexican drug cartel whose drugs he lost on the deal that landed him in prison. They threaten Bradley’s wife and unborn child is he does not kill a certain person in another prison across town. That prison, Redleaf Maximum Security Prison is a hell hole, make no mistake about it. Fit only for the worst of the worst scum humanity has to offer. But how to get from one prison to the other, seems to be the question and if he succeeds how does he find the person he is supposed to kill?
Brawl in Cell Block 99 was written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, the same man who brought us 2015’s surprise hit, Bone Tomahawk, a film I thought was overrated; decent but overrated. The problems I had with Bone Tomahawk are the same problems I have with Brawl in Cell Block 99. His writing is superb and especially so in this film. The problem is his pacing. He takes his time but both of these films seem to have energy issues. There does not seem to be any urgency to get to the point of the story. Now, I will say that Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a better film than Bone Tomahawk so, in that sense, Zahler has succeeded. But with a run time of 132 minutes “Brawl” is a bit long in the tooth.
Still much is to be said for Vince Vaughn and his performance. This is his best performance to date. He is chilling, intimidating and magnetic to watch. You don’t know whether to run for your life or just stand there and try to remain calm. He is tough, resilient and cunning. Just when you think you have him under your boot, he emerges unscathed. Every character in this film underestimates Bradley to their own detriment and Bradley will do what he must to survive so his family can survive. Jennifer Carpenter is good as Bradley’s sheepish wife, but about halfway through the film, she reveals a tougher side to herself, as well. Don Johnson is excellent as the sadistic warden of Redleaf, too. He makes it know he is not a man to be taken lightly, either. I also found this film to be edited quite effectively by Greg D’Auria and the cinematography by Benji Bakshi is startling and gritty.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not a big action film. It is a modestly paced thriller that is well acted and has more than its share of clever dialogue. This is a smaller ‘B’ title film; a small, independent film that knows it has struck gold with its lead actor. Vince Vaughn is the reason to see this film. He is the sole reason to see this film. Even though the pacing is a bit scattershot, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is tough, bloody and brutal, just like its star. When you see Bradley in the opening scene of the film with his shaven head but with a big, black cross on the back of his bald head, you immediately know what you are in for.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 – ***1/2 out of 5
Brawl in Cell Block 99 – Rated R for strong graphic language, strong graphic violence, drug use, gore and nudity
Brawl in Cell Block 99 – Run Time is 132 minutes
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is now playing in select cities and On Demand. Check your local listings for times and locations or check your local cable and internet providers for pricing and availability.