'Brawl in Cell Block 99'
‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ is the type of film that thoughtful consumers of nasty entertainment treasure. It’s a genre movie that never shies away from its most exploitative elements, instead embracing them in ways that will make audiences squeal, shift and applaud in equal measure.
It’s also as carefully paced and beautifully shot as any art house wonder. Call it high-minded trash. Come from the skull-crushing violence, stay to admire the deliberate art of the storytelling. It may not be a film for everyone, but it’s a hell of a treat for those who get a kick out of such things.
Vince Vaughn headlines the film, just not in any way that he’s been seen before. He essentially uses his large frame and wit to create a stoic and violent antihero in the Lee Marvin mode. Terse one-liners are stuck in his mouth and laughs follow, but he’s mostly a hulking badass in ways that the actor previously only hinted. The film opens with a long prologue in which his character, Bradley Thomas, loses his job and returns home to discover that his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) has been cheating on him. He responds by tearing apart his car with his bare hands before quietly returning to the household to calmly discuss what happened, how he was responsible, and suggesting ways to move on. It’s an odd inversion of expectations, establishing his unique protagonist as both a near-superhuman physical threat and a thoughtfully empathetic man hoping to do well.
From there, we jump ahead a few years. Bradley’s been working for a drug dealer and earning well for his wife and their soon-to-arrive child. He’s asked to supervise a deal with a potentially lucrative new Mexican connection. He knows it’s wrong before and during the mission, but sticks with the assignment and lands in jail. That’s when things take a turn to the nightmarish. Bradley is blackmailed into committing a murder in the titular Cell Block 99. The motivation is almost unimaginably horrific, and to make matters worse, he’s not even in the right prison. He’ll have to do something damaging enough to get transferred into that maximum security hellhole before he can even plan a murder. Quite a pickle, huh?
As delivered by writer/director S. Craig Zahler, ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ is both an immensely satisfying, down-and-dirty bit of nasty entertainment and a delightfully off-kilter and thoughtfully mounted work of cinema. If you’ve seen Zahler’s wonderfully horrific debut ‘Bone Tomahawk’, you’ll have some idea of what to expect. The man knows how to deliver dirty thrills and also how to build a compelling world with enigmatic characters, which makes the hard stuff cut even deeper. ‘Cell Block 99’ isn’t quite as thematically ambitious as his existentially strained cannibal Western, but it’s just as resonant and thrilling. It’s a vicious prison movie and also trip into Hell with Don Johnson and Udo Kier guarding the dark gates.
Shot through elegantly locked-off frames and gliding steadicams, the film is constantly teasing tension and hinting at explosions to come. When they arrive, they’re as brutally satisfying as anything in genre cinema these days, and not always pleasant. The film is made for audiences who crave the violent release of action, thriller and horror yarns presented in a way that makes them feel sick. There’s certainly fun to be had (and much more humor than Zahler’s debut suggested he was capable of), always in ways that are double-fisted and unsettling rather than elating. This is easily one of the best genre movies in years and confirms that S. Craig Zahler is an exciting new voice worth following for those whose tastes veers towards the macabre. If nothing else, you’ll never look at Vince Vaughn or Don Johnson the same way again by the time this is over, and I’ve got a feeling that both actors would be rather happy about that.