VOD film review: Brawl in Cell Block 99
Ivan Radford | On 20, Oct 2017
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Udo Kier, Don Johnson
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There’s something wonderful about the way that Brawl in Cell Block 99 tells you exactly what to expect – and still manages to surprise you at every turn.
S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to Bone Tomahawk makes that Western horror look like Blazing Saddles, as he dives into a disturbing celebration of violence, violence and even more violence. It’s the kind of manly male fare that is so macho it could be blended down and sold as a protein shake: a hulking, muscular beast of a movie that punches you in the gut, then delivers a stunning blow to the jaw for good measure. It is, shall we say, not for the faint-hearted.
But somehow – and even after watching it you won’t quite understand how – Zahler makes this nasty, blood-stained movie riotously enjoyable, worryingly moving and hugely satisfying to watch. It’s an incredible balancing act – on the one hand, shocking your nerves, and, on the other, wrenching your heart – but Zahler pulls it off with aplomb. And then pulls some body parts off too, just to be sure.
Vince Vaughn sinks his teeth into the role of Bradley, a desperate mechanic who turns to drug-trading acquaintances to support his pregnant wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter). But after a deal goes wrong, he wins up behind bars and is blackmailed into bumping up an inmate as atonement for the botched job. The catch? His intended target is in the maximum security wing of the title.
And so Bradley begins beating people up, crushing people’s skulls and gouging out people’s eyes, all in an effort to be transferred to the restricted zone. It’s a transformation that’s horrible to witness, not only because of its physical toll, but also its emotional one.
“I’d rather knit baby booties out of pink yarn than hit someone who didn’t deserve it,” says Bradley, with a sincerity and tenderness that’s entirely believable: Vince Vaughn delivers one of the best performances of the career here, his likeable charm selling this tough guy with a soft centre, a former boxer who is motivated solely by protecting his wife and unborn child. He’s a man with a strict sense of what is right, even down to the way he politely corrects people who call him “Brad” instead of his full name.
But Bradley’s also a former boxer, and Vaughn bulks up enough to sell that physically powerful presence – it’s not the cross tattooed on the back of his skinhead that makes him intimidating. Both sides of Vaughn in the lead is what makes Cell Block 99 work, easing us into the depraved world of fights, torture and shootouts. (Make no mistake: brawls aren’t the half of it.)
Jennifer Carpenter and Udo Kier make this comic book world just convincing enough, while Don Johnson embraces the movie’s sense of mischief with a colourful turn as a sadistic guard. And, with that framework established, Zahler doesn’t hesitate to let loose: he crafts a disgustingly subversive take on the prison movie genre, fused with the familiar trop of a fallen everyman, one that challenges us at every turn to sympathise with a guy whose capacity for brutality is as appalling as it is ruthless. The result is rip-roaring fun – it literally rips a man’s limb off while roaring about it – with a ferociously entertaining, unpredictable edge. Is it subtle? Far from it. But it’s almost artful in the extremes to which it goes to build a ride that only becomes more provocative as it goes on. Every time you think you know what horrors can be unleashed, Brawl in Cell Block 99 shifts up a gear. The really surprising thing? You’ll be cheering it on every step of the way.