Brawl in Cell Block 99, S. Craig Zahler’s new blood-soaked pulp crime thriller, isn’t interested in your sociopolitical ideals. It is here to offend you, to thrill you, and to kick your ass, and it does so in some of the most unpredictable and brutally violent ways. To top it off, this is the most fascinating performance of Vince Vaughn’s career.
Vaughn plays Bradley (Not Brad), a southern dude in upstate New York whose run of bad luck has become part of his life’s story. In a prologue we see Bradley get laid off from his tow-truck driver job, show up at home, discover his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been having an affair, and vent his frustrations by tearing apart her car with his bare hands. It’s a set up to make us believe Lauren is not long for the film, but Bradley’s pragmatic approach to his lot in life takes over. He calms himself, he understands her reasons for the affair, and he vows to make things better. This means calling an old friend and running drugs.
Fast forward 18 months and everything is better. Bradley and Lauren are happy, Lauren is expecting, and they live a life of serene, upper middle-class comfort. But a drug deal goes horribly wrong and Bradley is sentenced to a seven-year stint in a medium-security prison. If that weren’t bad enough, the drug kingpin whose money Bradley lost comes calling, and threatens to kill his wife and unborn child if he doesn’t kill an inmate at a Red Leaf, a maximum security prison across town.
All of this happens and we are merely halfway through Brawl in Cell Block 99. The job requires Bradley to assault some prison guards in order to get transferred to Red Leaf. Then, when inside the walls of Red Leaf he must do even more to get transferred to Cell Block 99, a hellish dungeon, the “prison inside the prison” according to the sadistic warden, Tuggs, played by a perfectly slimy Don Johnson. It’s best to say no more about the plot; let’s just say things get crazy. For some readers out there, the notion of prison violence doesn’t deter them, but be warned, this is violence like you have rarely seen. Hold on tight.
Zahler’s film unfolds at a deliberate pace, a slow-burning fuse simmering down to the stick of dynamite that is the third act. This is a Charles Bronson 70s exploitation film, a B-movie in sleeker clothes, and it all hinges on Vince Vaughn’s incredible performance. He is a revelation. Bradley is a good person, a patriot (he has two American flags at home, after all) a straight-shooting pragmatist who accepts his fates as they come barreling towards him over and over. Vaughn handles the southern accent with surprising accuracy, and he spits out Zahler’s hard-boiled dialogue like a deep-fried Raymond Chandler traversing the pit of hell.
Vaughn is in every scene, but the supporting players all add wonderful texture and grit. Johnson’s warden is cooly corrupt, Jennifer Carpenter is much more than the damsel in distress, and Udo Kier makes the most of a small part as a henchman for the scorned drug lord. It all works in concert to create a film that is unique, unpredictable, and increasingly shocking.
Zahler employs wide angle lenses to let a film set inside narrow prison hallways and dingy cells breathe. And he choreographs the hand-to-hand brutality with a keen eye for spatial geography and static, medium shots. It allows Vaughn to show off an athleticism we’ve never seen in his other roles. The big guy can move here, he can take a punch, and he can most certainly dole out punishment in increasingly brutal forms. This is not a film for everyone, because it doesn’t want to be. It is a movie for genre enthusiasts who love a good romp, who aren’t easily offended by racial stereotypes, and who have a strong enough stomach to handle the brutality.