Brawl in Cell Block 99, the new film from writer/director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk),is a big schizophrenic mess of a film that lovers of macho pulp will wholeheartedly embrace. It rolls two or three film genres into one uneven, but ultimately satisfying, drama/thriller/action film. It takes a long time to light the fuse on this film, but once it starts burning, there’s no putting it out.
Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughan) gets laid off at a local garage and decides to return to his former life as a drug mule of sorts. As soon as his boss gets in bed with an international drug cartel, things start to go sideways, and you know that Bradley is going down hard. (Given the fact that Cell Block 99 is part of the title, it’s not exactly a spoiler that our lead character is headed to prison at some point.) It’s only after Bradley arrives in the Department of Corrections that the plot thickens and heads in unexpected directions that won’t be revealed here.
Brawl begins as a character drama about a couple with a marriage on life support after the miscarriage of their first child. Then it morphs into a standard prison drama about adapting, surviving and overcoming on the inside. And lastly, it goes flying off the rails into gonzo, uber-violent grindhouse territory. The violence borders on outright sadism, and if that’s not your cup of tea, then Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not the film for you. If broken limbs and squashed skulls don’t make you queasy, the final thirty minutes of this film are a satisfying ride.
Vince Vaughan impresses as the beefed-up bruiser who tries to punch his way out of his dilemma. Although Season 2 of True Detective was much maligned by critics (unfairly at times), Vaughan brought a surprising sense of menace to his role as gangster Frank Semyon. With his head shaved and carrying himself with a heft that belies his lean frame, Vaughan dominates the screen. In one scene, the guards debate how big he is as he lumbers by. One offers 6’2″; the other 6’4″. In reality, he’s 6’5″ and plays it even more imposing than that.
In Bone Tomahawk, S. Craig Zahler took on western dime-store pulp novels and produced a transcendent film packed with humor, wit and deftly-drawn characters. It was one of the best films of 2015. Brawl never attains those lofty heights, but fans of macho pulp novels and exploitation action cinema will leave satisfied. Along with Jim Mickle (Cold in July, Hap and Leonard), Zahler is leading a genre revival and breathing new life into an art form that spends too much time simply going through the motions. Brawl in Cell Block 99 isn’t quite as good as you want it to be, but it’s certainly good enough.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.