When we meet Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) in Brawl in Cell Block 99, things could not be worse for our protagonist. A former boxer who has struggled to turn his life around by making an honest living has just lost his job due to the economy, and as he makes his way home early to lick his wounds, he discovers that his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), has been having an affair. Not content with the direction his life is headed, Bradley decides to go back to being a drug runner for his dealer pal, Gil (Marc Blucas), but things go south after a pick-up goes badly, and Mr. Thomas finds himself being incarcerated for his crimes after he refuses to snitch on his boss.
All this seems like a rather run-of-the-mill set-up for a grungy revenge-fueled actioner, but what follows in CB 99 is anything but predictable, as writer/director S. Craig Zahler takes his time getting us to the film’s eponymous locale, making his latest feel more like a brutal and badass character study than a rock-’em-sock-’em slugfest that’s all about just giving us violence for the sake of mindless entertainment. In less skilled hands, CB 99 could have turned out to be a much more inferior experience, but between Zahler’s impressive storytelling capabilities and his brilliant and eclectic cast, Brawl in Cell Block 99 isn’t interested in giving fans more of “the usual,” and the film soars because of its intent to rise above those expectations.
There are so many aspects of CB 99 that make the story work as well as it does, but the biggest reason is due to Vaughn’s incredible performance, which is as emotionally grueling as it is physically punishing. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t really been into many of the films he’s done over the last 10 years (I think the last films I really enjoyed that featured Vaughn were Dodgeball and Anchorman, and the latter is basically an extended cameo), and I never watched True Detective, either. So admittedly, Vaughn has fallen a bit off my radar over the last decade, but holy hell, does CB 99 make for an incredible re-welcoming party, because his performance in this is the very definition of an actor wholly reinventing himself, making Brawl in Cell Block 99 an undeniable turning point for Vaughn as an actor.
As mentioned, Zahler brought together an unusual ensemble for CB 99, featuring the likes of Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Tom Guiry (the kid from The Sandlot), as well as the aforementioned Carpenter and Blucas (who most genre fans will recognize from his work as Riley on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series), and there’s not a mediocre performance in the bunch. Kier comes into the story to seriously screw with Vaughn in what might be Brawl’s most intense scene that doesn’t involve Bradley punching someone in the face, and even though he doesn’t get a ton of screen time, the acting legend makes every moment on screen count. Johnson is also particularly great in CB 99, too, as he turns his cigar-chewing Warden into something more interesting than yet another caricature of a militant figure of authority who utilizes his power to cater to his own demented agenda.
In regards to the script, there are a lot of familiar elements to CB 99, but much like he did in Bone Tomahawk, Zahler takes those recognizable tropes and masterfully massages them in some rather unique ways. For example, after Bradley discovers his wife has been seeing someone on the side, and we can see the rage in his eyes as he curls his fists and orders her to go inside the house, it seems like Carpenter’s character is doomed for some type of physical violence. Not the case at all. Bradley, a man who struggles in the film’s first half to control his brutish strength, takes out his frustration and outrage on Lauren’s car instead, because he knows he has to channel those emotions somewhere, and the last thing he’d ever do is lay a hand on his wife. There’s a thoughtfulness to Zahler’s approach here, and it all works beautifully.
Featuring some of the most impressive long-take fight sequences I’ve seen in some time, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a grisly and exceptional follow-up to Zahler’s equally impressive debut, Bone Tomahawk, as he’s now proven on two occasions that as a filmmaker, he is just as invested in giving us compelling characters as he is in delivering shocking jolts of violence and brutality. Action fans should definitely keep an eye out for this one—it’s the most fun you’ll ever have watching a guy getting his head stomped clear off his shoulders and into a dirty toilet bowl.
Movie Score: 4/5
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