Visceral, violent and engaging, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a guilty pleasure for all of us craving that testosterone overload. This is the second movie coming to us from director S. Craig Zahler. Bone Tomahawk ripped through the western genre with its thick atmosphere and a very strong performance by Kurt Russel. This time, we are treated to a totally different approach with Vince Money Vaughn in a role that will establish the rest of his career. See Ben Assfleck, it can be done. Gradually and over time, but it can be done. Let’s not forget that after Swingers, Vaughn played Norman Bates in a botched remake of the Psycho.
Frank Semyon was his first lead dark role after this and as things tend to go in True Detective, he was really good. As you might have figured from the title of this movie, this is a Grindhouse tribute. Reminiscent of the seventies wave of strong male roles featuring actors like Bronson and Eastwood expect a true testosterone overload. Just to be sure that the audience got the message, the movie starts with one of the greatest overly manly scenes. So, what fuck is this movie about?
Bradley Thomas, former drug dealer, and alcoholic, now works as a tow truck driver, living a humble and simple life. That simple life will soon start to get complicated as he gets fired and finds out that his wife is cheating on him. Sick of living in poverty, he decides to start dealing drugs again. The things soon turn to better, as they inevitably do with all that cash, but just as inevitably you reap the rewards, you must be aware that there is a 100% chance that something will go wrong. Sooner or later, you will be tested. And sure enough, Bradley soon finds himself in prison, forced to do things that could not be possibly done. But, where’s will, there’s a way.
I thought life always finds a way would be too intellectually. There are so many fistfights in this movie that it’s almost like a boxing match. There’s also a strong seventies overall vibe. From the gritty setting to a way that the storyline progresses you can almost smell the cocaine on the toilet seats. In recent years we have seen movies like Punisher: War Zone, Dredd, Fortress and The Raid with a similar storyline: protagonist moves through a relatively static structure of increasingly skilled opponents until he reaches the top dog. Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, his last movie shot in 1978, is also one of the more notable examples. Zahler doesn’t go full-on game of death but uses the gimmick to help with the storyline and pacing.
This is actually a second good prison movie I have seen this year, what with the Shot Caller being the first. Compared to this movie, it now seems subdued and timid. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a deeply subversive masterpiece, taking us through a nightmarish roller coaster of destruction. It thrives on scenes and parts of the prison experience that no one wants to talk about or show, almost documentary-style showcasing how it feels like to be put in all these situations.
You know that the storyline will always take the most fucked up angle. However, in your heart, you let yourself believe that it will somehow turn out much better. This is where those intense scenes come in and release the tension you’re feeling. Filled with great characters, from creepy Warden Tuggs to outright sadistic doctor and henchmen, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a movie that you will remember and enjoy.
P.S. Fuck man, after seeing a movie like this prison seems like a thing you should avoid at all cost 🙂
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas, Dion Mucciacito, Fred Melamed, Clark Johnson
Fun Facts: Vince Vaughn really destroyed that car all on his own. The car parts were real and set up in a way he wouldn’t hurt himself badly.