Brawl in Cell Block 99 Review

Filmmaker S. Craig Zahler brought a blast of offbeat creativity to the Western genre two years ago with his freak-out Bone Tomahawk. And he’s back now to reinvent the prison movie with this highly stylised, powerfully violent dramatic thriller. It takes the tone of a 1970s exploitation movie, digging into the more emotional sides of the story as the grisliness escalates. And it also gives Vince Vaughn a character unlike anyone he’s ever played: beefy, unstoppable and intriguingly sensitive.


He stars as recovering alcoholic Bradley, who lives in upstate New York with his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter). He has just discovered that she’s had an affair, so he takes out his rage on her car before stopping for a reasonable discussion about putting their marriage back together. The problem seems to be connected to their lack of money, so he approaches his old friend Gil (Marc Blucas) about taking a job as a drug runner. And the larger cashflow indeed improves their relationship until Bradley is arrested following a massive shootout with the cops. In prison, a mystery man (Udo Kier) tells Bradley that the now-pregnant Lauren will be killed unless he murders someone in the notorious high-security wing at Redleaf Penitentiary, a fortress run by the sadistic warden Tuggs (Don Johnson).


This is very much a film of two halves. The first hour centres on the marital drama, deepening the connection between Bradley and Lauren and outlining how they put themselves into a precarious position in an attempt to survive and have a happy life. Then when it shifts behind bars, Vaughn’s bulked-up physicality comes to the forefront as a methodically intense man who speaks slowly before pouncing with vicious intent. It’s a terrific performance, playing cleverly to the against-type casting to keep the audience on edge. And Vaughn digs deep into Bradley’s psyche even in the film’s most hideously gruesome fight sequences, which are carefully choreographed to look almost like horrific dance numbers.


The supporting cast is also excellent, with the always terrific Carpenter bringing feisty soul to Lauren even when she becomes the requisite kidnapped woman. And Johnson gleefully chomps the scenery (and several cigars) as the thuggish prison boss who believes he’s above the law. By twisting these kinds of movie stereotypes, Zahler creates a blackly comical B-movie vibe that infuses every scene, undercutting the outrageous nastiness. So while the fights are stomach-churning, they’re also oddly cathartic. Especially since they’re an expression of Bradley’s singular love for his wife. In other words, he shouldn’t be inspirational, but he is.