Brawl in Cell Block 99 Review

Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) has recently been fired from his job. He goes home to find that his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been seeing someone else and while he does end up destroying his wife's car in a fit of rage, he ends up forgiving her and pledges to contribute more to the family. Bradley becomes a drug courier, but when a deal with another mob boss goes south, Bradley ends up in jail. Once there, he receives a visit from an intimidating older gentleman who reveals that he has kidnapped Lauren and Bradley must fight his way to a specific person to save her.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 has been compared to grindhouse films and B-movies of the 1970s: this film is dirty and violent. It has men’s heads being grated away by a rough concrete floor, broken bones, eyes gouged out and one of the most disgusting toilets in cinematic history. It is a film that seemingly has one purpose, to purvey the kind of base entertainment that you find only in the grimmest of midnight movies. However, that would just be a surface read of the film.

While Brawl in Cell Block 99 does revel in the grindhouse aesthetic of blood and other bodily fluids going where they really shouldn't, there are a few things that mark it out as an odd beast, to say the least. For one it stars Vince Vaughn, a predominantly comedic actor, in the lead role. Vaughn has been one of the main focusses in other critics' reviews of the film, his intimidating stature and barely contained rage powers the film's story and action leading to the most brutal prison brawls this side of Bronson. It marks a stark return for an actor who until now, and perhaps last year's Hacksaw Ridge, languished in below average comedies. Now we get to see his true range and I, for one, look forward to seeing him in more things like this. His braggadocio quips and quiet fury is backed up by solid performances from Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter, and Udo Kier.

Similarly, the film has a certain artfulness that is rarely seen in these homages to the exploitation genre. It takes its time in all things, with the set-up and it is around the 90-minute mark before we get to the titular Cell Block 99. This allows for periods of silence between the brutal violence while Bradley contemplates his situation, mercilessly beats on a car, and eats his dinner. We have time to connect with him and his family, his situation and his fight.  Similarly, the film uses long takes, accentuating the quiet and the violent, even in the fights, and does not shy away from the brutality of our main character. In these moments we see both sides of Bradley and are asked to align ourselves with him in all his monstrous humanity.

The film certainly has fun with its premise; it not only has a great central performance but there is a depth in the movie that may not be in other films of its ilk, and something that prevents absolute enjoyment. This takes place as Bradley is transferred into Red Leaf, the horrifying prison within a prison that resembles a dungeon that Vincent Price might have frequented rather than a criminal correction facility, or maybe it happens when Udo Kier makes an appearance as a quietly intimidating go-between for the impossibly powerful drug baron Bradley betrayed. It is a dramatic tonal shift and the film seemingly changes gears so quickly after the slow set-up that you are likely to get whiplash.

While it was a problem for me, if you can keep up with the swift u-turn this won't damage your enjoyment of the film. For me, after the entry into Red Leaf the film lost that certain depth that previous scenes had and all that is left is some over the top violence with nothing to commend it above "dude that guy’s head exploded" moments. If you have a liking for the more junky variety of movie, I know I personally do, then Brawl in Cell Block 99 has what you need and more. It has a surprise turn from a lead actor that many thought over the hill, the courage to take its time and a premise that starts strong. While the third act may put a lot of people out, it is still a strong film that demands a watch.

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Despite a shift in tone that may prove to be a make or break moment for the film, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is still a fascinating piece with a fantastic surprise central performance.


out of 10

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