Brawl in Cell Block 99
Updated: Feb 5, 2020
Some films are meant to make you think. Some are meant to make you laugh. Some try to entertain with action or scares. And some entertain with the bold single-mindedness of its action and characters. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is in that last category.
Vince Vaughn stars as Bradley Thomas, a man who is smart and polite on the outside and a bubbling cauldron of anger on the inside. As the film opens, he is fired from his job and finds out that his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter, best known as the title character’s sister, Debra, on the Showtime thriller Dexter), has been cheating on him. In a moment that successfully sets the tone for the rest of the film, he reacts to this by destroying her car with his bare hands. He promises Lauren that everything will be okay if she gets pregnant and he begins bringing in more money. Time passes, they are living in a much nicer place, Lauren is pregnant and Bradley is making good money working for his drug dealer friend Gil (Marc Blucas). Then, something goes wrong and he ends up in jail. That’s when things go really wrong.
At six foot five inches, Vince Vaughn can be an intimidating presence. Generally, he plays it for laughs. Not so here. With his head shaved and an iron cross tattooed on the back of his skull, he does not look like someone you want to be messing with. His southern charm may hide it (the film is set in Louisiana), but he can be a vicious and scary person. Vaughn is excellent as a man who will go through anyone to do what he thinks needs to be done for his wife and unborn daughter. This is probably the best performance of his career, partly because of how unexpected it is.
Vaughn is best known for his comedies, but he has played criminals and killers in serious films. He has even played serial killers (1998’s dark comedy Clay Pigeons and Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho remake both come to mind). But he has never been as terrifying as he is here. Bradley goes back and forth between charm and horror in a way that is completely believable considering the material. Vaughn carries the film and holds absolutely nothing back. He takes the film to some extremely dark places.
Before I go any further with my praise, I feel I should make it clear that this is a very violent film. The action is brutal and bloody and it does not let its audience off the hook by distancing itself with jokes or cutaways. It takes its story very seriously even in its more outrageous moments. In recent years, the term “grindhouse” has been used in reference to knowingly over the top films like the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez collaboration Grindhouse or Rodriguez’s Machete films. Those movies showed carnage with a smile on their face. Brawl in Cell Block 99 does not smile. It walks headfirst into its cruel world and does not blink.
This is an old school exploitation film to its very core. It looks to entertain its audience through violence and darkly outrageous subject matter and does so about as well as it can be done. It has been released unrated, most likely because the filmmakers did not want to be tagged with an NC-17 rating for violence. So if you are looking for a fun action movie, stay clear.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (125 minutes before the end credits) was written and directed by S. Craig Zahler (who also helped compose the score). This is his second film as a director after 2015’s horror/western hybrid Bone Tomahawk. He introduces us to his protagonist, but never forces us to like him. There are reasons Bradley does the things he does (some of them understandable), but I never felt like he was supposed to be a hero. Maybe an anti-hero? Zahler shows him doing some pretty bad things and understands him, but I’m not sure he forgives him. Bradley is a fascinating character, not just because of Vaughn’s performance, but also because Zahler never attempts to explain him.
For a film like this to work, the cast needs to really go for it. In addition to Vaughn, Carpenter, Blucas, Dion Mucciacito as rival drug dealer Eleazar, Geno Segers (who was also in Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk) as Eleazar’s muscle, Roman and the dependable Udo Kier (who can also be seen in this winter’s Downsizing) as the mysterious Placid Man are all very well-cast. They play off of Vaughn well. But the best supporting performance is by Don Johnson as hard-nosed Warden Tuggs. He seems to be having a delightful time playing a man who seems to truly enjoy threatening and abusing his prisoners. He has rules, but if they are crossed, he can be as vicious as Bradley. Johnson is perfect for the role and provides a great antagonist for Bradley in the film’s second half.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is gruesomely violent and very dark. It follows unpleasant people as they do unpleasant things. If any of those things make it sound like a movie you may not enjoy, turn away now. But if you are still interested, let me also say that it is intense, compelling and very well-made. For the more adventurous moviegoer who enjoys a bit of the old ultra-violence, definitely check this one out.
4 out of 5
Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas
Jennifer Carpenter as Lauren Thomas
Don Johnson as Warden Tuggs
Tom Guiry as Wilson
Marc Blucas as Gil
Udo Kier as Placid Man
Geno Segers as Roman
Dion Mucciacito as Eleazar
Written and Directed by S. Craig Zahler