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BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99: A Smart & Visceral Thrill Ride

Director S. Craig Mahler follows up Bone Tomahawk with Brawl In Cell Block 99, an unflinchingly violent and truly original revenge thriller.

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99: A Smart & Visceral Thrill Ride

Though many know him as the deadpan comedy star, Vince Vaughn has also conquered dramatic roles. One of his most complex is the recent Brawl in Cell Block 99. Concurrent with many movies about someone falling on hard times and turning to crime, Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas takes a similar misstep.

“South Of Okay, North Of Cancer.”

We’re introduced to Bradley on a difficult day. He’s lost his job, and comes home to find out his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been unfaithful. After dissecting his wife’s car with his bare hands, he decides they need a change. This is the first glimpse of the former boxer’s brute strength. It is served deliberately slow so that each touch can be captured.

His friend Gil (Marc Blucas) has a position for him delivering drugs. As the movie jumps ahead eighteen months we are reintroduced to the couple, expecting a baby girl, and comfortable in their decision.

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99: A Smart & Visceral Thrill Ride

source: RLJE Films

Despite their flourishing, there is a pit of dread that fills your gut as soon as you see him doing well, knowing that this new venture is going to reach a violent end. When Gil brings on a new associate, one with considerable influence, Bradley is forced to bring two of his men along for a pick up and things go terribly wrong.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 uses minimal colors and its dusty tint suits the story well. For the brief time that Bradley is happy there are colorful notes (such as within his unborn child’s room) but when things begin their trek into despair, it’s dimmed once again.

“You Should Aim Higher With Your Wishes.”

Of course, it’s not a secret from the title that Bradley is incarcerated. He accepts his time and is ready to commit without giving someone up. This is a sacrifice, not seeing his child born, but he takes it in stride. Unfortunately, others see it differently. Lauren is taken and held hostage.

The man who delivers the ultimatum to Vaughn behind bars is played by Udo Kier with a cool indifference. Unless Bradley meets their demands, they have a gruesome plan in store for her and their child. It’s grotesque, and I’ll just say it involves an abortionist.

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99: A Smart & Visceral Thrill Ride

source: RLJE Films

Without delving too much into the details, this direction requires a lot of violence and disobedience on the part of Vaughn. Each step takes him further into the bowels of confinement and closer to his goal. Our antihero is consistently abused, but it doesn’t slow him down.

The circumstances test his resolve and place him against as much adversity as a person can imagine, all for the sake of saving the ones he loves. Despite what he is forced to do his character never loses his edge or his purpose. We’re not watching a man inciting violence for pleasure, but necessity.

“I Suspect that Amnesty International Would Frown Upon The Contents Of This Room.”

Jennifer Carpenter gives a strong performance, but for the most part she’s a pawn to the story. Her character serves as a motivation more than anything else. Don Johnson plays the warden, disseminating his power and seemingly enjoying his ability to inflict pain. The supporting cast accentuates Vaughn, allowing him to move through each scene effectively.

source: RLJE Films

Brawl is unflinching and in its third act it pulverizes. What’s given out as backstory is just enough that we’re invested in Bradley, but there’s no overindulgence of unnecessary details. Nothing about Brawl is done half way, and Vince Vaughn gives a no holds barred depiction. It’s brutal, ballsy, and terrifically entertaining.

The effects are stylized, capturing the sensation of a B movie. Each decision, each carefully chosen detail pays off. The soulful music by Jeff Herriott and Zahler is also essential in this rarity. The fights are filmed in wide shots and in long lengths with remarkable ease. Brawl in Cell Block 99 does a fantastic job of keeping us in pace with his story. At a two hour and twelve minute run time you could assume there are areas that could be trimmed, but nothing is wasted here.

Every grueling hour of loneliness within the prison or the anticipation of each punishment is felt. If you don’t wince at least once, you aren’t giving the movie the attention it deserves. The violence is done in a way that makes Brawl in Cell Block 99 more impactful. It is a graphic movie, with no room for the squeamish, but if you are looking for action with substance to boot, this will satisfy.

In Conclusion: Brawl In Cell Block 99 

In his second turn as director and third as writer, S.Craig Zahler again hits us with a sharp script. Just like his last, the unique Bone Tomahawk, he manages to weave humor organically throughout. He’s a director to watch, and brings true originality to his projects.

While elements here have been seen before in other films the specifics are what sets it apart. A powerful protagonist, incredible stunt choreography (co-ordinator Drew Leary) and excellent cinematography (Benji Bakshi) make each moment inventive. The special effects pop, making you feel the weight of each crunch.

Despite the brawl factor of the movie, which is in no part exaggerated, there is still an undercurrent of honorable intention. He’s a loving husband, a hopeful father, and a indomitable man who knows what the end looks like and is willing to take the plunge.

Fists first.

Do you agree? What did you think of the film? Tell us in the comments below!

Brawl in Cell Block 99 was released in the US on October 6th and the UK October 20th. 


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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Kristy Strouse is from a small town in Maine, but frequents the world (and beyond) in her daily exploration through her love of film.

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