Studio: RLJE Films
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Producer: Dallas Sonnier, Jack Heller
Stars: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Marc Blucas, Mustafa Shakir, Thomas Guiry, Dion Mucciacito, Geno Segers, Willie C. Carpenter, Fred Melamed, Clark Johnson, Udo Kier, Don Johnson
An imprisoned drug runner is forced to brutalize other inmates and corrupt guards in order to rescue his pregnant wife from a criminal kingpin.
For those of us who’ve never been there, our impression of prison comes chiefly from fictionalized film and TV. An occasional PBS investigative special may sneak in there to dial back overactive imaginations with a dose of reality. But for every hour we’ve watched of a true life ‘behind bars’ exposé, there’s an entire season of HBO’s “Oz” conditioning us to envision incarceration as a “Lord of the Flies” life of rape, riots, race wars, and putting barbells into gangbangers’ skulls to earn favor with a kingpin on the inside.
“Brawl in Cell Block 99” intentionally, and exuberantly, takes Tobias Beecher’s worst waking nightmares and exaggerates, exacerbates, and exalts them tenfold. Without outwardly exhibiting the cheaper B-grade textures of grindhouse cinema, writer/director S. Craig Zahler throws tone back to an era when fists filled in for words, weapons, and currency, and a character could be created from charisma, confidence, and crackling machismo.
If perpetual hard luck case Bradley Thomas had a Dungeons & Dragons alignment, it would be Chaotic Neutral. More sinner than saint, taking care of his own generally drives Bradley’s direction. That direction unfortunately has a tendency to turn him toward trouble he isn’t always asking for.
Bradley just discovered his wife Lauren’s affair right after being laid off from his blue-collar job. Bradley’s solution for the former is to renew their marriage by having a baby. His solution for the latter is to resume running drugs for his old criminal contact Gil.
The film fills in the details, but as should be evident from the title, a job gone bad ends with Bradley serving a stint in the slammer. He’s fine to do the time, refusing to roll on his boss and finding solace in pregnant Lauren’s promise to wait for his release. A rival drug lord however, won’t let bars prevent Bradley from paying his debt for the failed run.
The threat of harm coming to his wife and unborn child compels Bradley to agree to a new assignment: kill an inmate named Christopher Bridge. Trouble is, Bridge is in a different prison, and deep in that facility’s bowels to boot. Getting there doesn’t require too much cunning. But it does demand that Bradley viciously beat his way through prisoners, guards, and anyone else who stands in the way of saving his family.
It’s a simple setup essentially because everyone involved fulfills a stereotypical function. Vince Vaughn uses gait and expressions to shape Bradley, though at his core he remains a brawny brooder refashioned from a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Jennifer Carpenter plays the put-upon partner hopelessly tethered to a bad boy her friends and family most certainly would disapprove of. Don Johnson definitely doesn’t need to chew a cigar to sell his hard-ass hick warden, but takes it over that top anyway. Underneath this trio sits the expected troupe of kindly old inmate showing Bradley the ropes, gruff guards anxious to offer deserved and undeserved beatdowns, Udo Kier’s well-manicured consigliere, and assorted enforcers.
“Brawl in Cell Block 99” earns a governor’s pardon for clichéd characterizations due to how confidently the cast puts pat personalities into play. They own their roles, no matter how big or small, making an audience believe in them too. More mileage comes from the way every actor swirls dialogue in weighted nuance before spitting it out. Each individual moment is always afforded the time to take in as much breath as needed before exhaling.
The movie’s broad strokes are big. Subtlety only enters the picture through Zahler’s seething storytelling style. Impatient sets should be cautioned that Bradley doesn’t get locked up until 45 minutes in, and doesn’t make it to the titular locale for 45 minutes more. It can seem as though “Brawl” means to test our patience, although the intention is to test Bradley’s much more. The point aims to illustrate a slow boil in order to understand how it pops the thermometer.
And when “Brawl in Cell Block 99” pops, it explodes. Things that snap include limbs, eyeballs, faces, even entire heads. If you thought the already infamous “de-gloving” scene from “Gerald’s Game” (review here) was harrowingly horrifying, wait until you see that same gruesomeness applied further north of the neck. Certain to be this movie’s most memorable moment, a particularly creative kill rivals the similarly gory shock of the “wishbone” sequence from S. Craig Zahler’s previous film “Bone Tomahawk” (review here). Just two features deep into his directorial filmography and Zahler has set a standard for crunchy carnage where audiences will forever expect a wickeder wince on each outing the way everyone automatically anticipates a twist in an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
The double-edge here is that “Brawl in Cell Block 99” becomes as much of a vehicle for visceral violence as it is for Vince Vaughn. This is well and fine for fans of the gritty aesthetic architected from the outset. Yet a lack of layers creates an echo down a long corridor of patiently paced exploitation entertainment needing additional depth to its manly mayhem.
More intelligently conceived than many of its influences, “Brawl in Cell Block 99” misses crime classic status because after the last body drops, it’s hard to rationalize what everything really amounts to. Though if the only goal is dramatic action satisfaction in the here and now, by all means, tape up the knuckles and start punching. Just be ready to soak in a slow simmer character deconstruction over broken bone brutality, as there is far more of one than there is of the other.
Review Score: 70