Director: S. Craig Zahler
Screenplay: S.Craig Zahler
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier
Duration: 132 min
BBFC Certification: 18
I first discovered Vince Vaughn in Swingers, playing the wise cracking likeable guy that he would then go on to play in virtually every other film he’s starred in. Sure there was a few exceptions such as Psycho and Domestic Disturbance, but he has pretty much always played the same character. In Brawl In Cell Block 99, Vaughn gives his stand out performance playing against type.
After losing his job as a tow truck driver, Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) discovers that his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been cheating on him, but decides to wipe the slate clean and start over. He forgives Lauren, they decide to start a family, and Bradley returns to working as drug courier. Things start to go well for Bradley – big house, flash car, Lauren is pregnant - but then his boss Gil (Marc Blucas) makes a deal with a cartel head that means Bradley reluctantly works with the kingpin’s henchmen on a pickup. When the job inevitably goes bad, Bradley loses the drugs and ends up getting arrested. Incarcerated in a medium security prison known as “The Fridge”, he is soon visited by the cartel head’s representative (Udo Kier) and informed that Lauren has been kidnapped and their unborn child will be in danger unless he pays off his debt. To do this, he must find a way to get himself transferred to Cell Block 99 of Redleaf Maximum Security Prison and kill a targeted inmate.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 is pure grindhouse. Director S. Craig Zahler is obviously a fan of exploitation cinema of the 70s, but this film is no pastiche. Like his previous film, the excellent Bone Tomahawk, he takes a pure pulp story but creates a slow burn narrative, establishing the lead character for 90 mins before everything goes batshit crazy in the final act. However, Brawl is far too long. There are too many scenes of Vaughn brooding in cars or Vaughn brooding in cells, and I feel that the film could have done with a little bit of trimming.
This is a very nihilistic film – not once do you feel that Bradley has hope that he will save his wife and unborn child, he just goes about his brutality in a very matter of fact manner. Although the violence can border on the cartoonish, it is still visceral. In one scene, where a prison guard’s arm is snapped and the bone protrudes through the arm, the cracking sound is near vomit inducing.
Casting for the film is near perfect, with Vaughn very convincing as this unstoppable machine – I wouldn’t be surprised if he will now become an unlikely action hero, very much as Liam Neeson has since Taken. Jennifer Carpenter is under used and Udo Kier, in a small role, exudes malevolence as he has comfortably done on screen for decades. Clearly having fun as the governor of Redleaf Maximum Security Prison, Don Johnson positively chews the scenery, proving that these larger than life B-move characters are a natural choice for his acting chops.
With firstly Bone Tomahawk and now Brawl In Cell Block 99, Zahler has proved that he has a bright future, and it is only a matter of time before he has a Tarantino sized hit on his hands.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 is released on DVD on Blu-Ray by Universal.