Verge Reviews: Brawl In Cell Block 99

Vince Vaughn is unrecognisable and totally compelling in S. Craig Zahler’s latest action-thriller hit.

Whenever Vince Vaughn’s name is mentioned, I automatically think back fondly to his performances in Wedding Crashers, Dodgeball and Anchorman. His heyday, as it were. I’m sure I’m not the only one either. His roles in these three films alone earned him worldwide fame and accolades and even a place in the renowned Hollywood ‘Frat-Pack’, elevating him to the same heights as the likes of Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and dare I say it, even Will Ferrell. As with anything though, too much of something is usually a bad thing. Despite an explosive start to his career, it appeared fizzle out with consecutive box office disappointments and work that often promised much and delivered little. Recently though, Vaughn has had something of a renaissance. He has returned to taking on more complex roles, receiving plaudits for his performances in the likes of Delivery Man and the second season of True Detective and now, taking on a complete physical transformation in Brawl In Cell Block 99.

Brawl In Cell Block 99 is S. Craig Zahler’s latest action-thriller and it is something of a masterpiece. It’s gritty, (very, very) dark, twisted, brutal and actually, surprisingly funny. The film follows Bradley Thomas, a former boxer, turned mechanic who loses his job and ends up returning to his roots as a drug runner. When his latest collaborative drug deal goes wrong, Thomas is sent to prison leaving his pregnant wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) dangerously alone. Once in prison, Thomas receives some terrible and disgusting news regarding his wife and child’s welfare and is given instructions to get himself moved to the maximum security prison Goldleaf to take care of an inmate in Cell Block 99 in order to save his family. What follows is an intense and brutal thriller that has you completely on edge right to the end.

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, it’s fair to say that Brawl In Cell Block 99 is an incredible film for many reasons. The amount of detail that has gone into the plot and character storylines is superb. It’s rare to watch a film with such an ambitious story and end product like Brawl In Cell Block 99 and come away feeling completely content, satisfied and pleased with how the film turns out. Despite being well over two hours and with half of the film being set inside a prison, Zahler manages to tell a complex and emotional story at a fast pace and succeeds in tying up all the inevitable loose ends in a simple and believable way. There are no big twists, evil half-sibling revelations or demons in the pit of the prison, but a rather more likely furious drug dealing businessman who has lost over $3,000,000 and needs to take his revenge against an ex-boxer who’s about to lose his family. Give me that storyline over any of those aforementioned plot twists any day of the week!

This achievement is all the more impressive when you realise that there is very little music and barely even a soundtrack to help the film along. Even when switching between locations and scenes, instead of a heavy musical accompaniment you have a silent, distressed looking and dead-still Vaughn, staring straight at you or the sound of a chugging engine from a battered prisoner transport van. I love watching films that feel true to life and completely suck you in and Zahler’s execution of this realism in Brawl In Cell Block 99 is in many ways masterful.

As is the way the fist-clenching brutality is delivered. It’s been a while since I last saw a film that shows you an arm break in quite such realistic detail and the same can be said for the skinning of a face. Honestly, if you’re squeamish or struggle with gore then it’s probably wise to give this film a miss. Amazingly, there are even more examples of this shockingly genuine savageness and the fact that it comes across as this and not at all gimmicky is another testament to the film and the Director.

The performances are all top drawer with Vaughn transforming himself to into a compelling and totally believable drug spinning nutcase. For all the bravado and loudness that goes hand in hand with these types of roles, there is a much more understated, genuine understanding of his strength and what he is capable of. The scenes that top his performance off for me are when we see Vaughn struggling to deal with his rage appropriately after finding out his wife has been unfaithful and completely taking apart and battering her car and also the tragically sad and poignant scene at the end of the film when he finally manages to speak to Lauren before accepting his fate. Vaughn’s performance sees him go through an emotional journey that we’ve not seen before and he absolutely thrives in this film. There are also some very good performances by Jennifer Carpenter as Lauren and Don Johnson is wonderfully cold and unforgiving as Prison Warden Tuggs, the man in charge of Goldleaf. Vaughn though, will rightly take the plaudits. He carries the film by appearing in practically every scene and if ever there was a performance to make people re-evaluate their opinions on his work, then this is it.

Brawl In Cell Block 99 is a triumph. Even though it has a fairly lengthy running time, it flies by. In my opinion, cinema fans will love it; there are plenty of shocks and moments that are almost too disgusting to watch but there is also plenty to admire and enjoy, not least the performances and the sheer brilliance that is the simplicity of the film.

Brawl In Cell Block 99 is released by RLJE films on October 20th.
Rating: 4.5/5

Watch the trailer here: