There is nothing calm about Brawl In Cell Block 99. It is as physically unnerving as it is psychologically intensive. I was expecting a tense ride having seen S. Craig Zahler’s first film, Bone Tomahawk, but, this was severe. Simplified, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is primal. Survival is as paramount in this film as it was in Bone Tomahawk, displaying Zahler’s fascination in eschewing man’s modern plights and instead focuses on man’s basic need for survival.
Vince Vaughn stars as Bradley Thomas; a quiet, towering ex-boxer/tow truck driver that epitomizes the blue-collar dilemma of overworked/underpaid. As the film begins, he is fired and finds out his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) has been cheating on him all in the same day. Desperate, he turns to a life of crime, drug-running for a successful old friend (Marc Blucas). After a job goes haywire, Bradley lands himself and his cohorts in prison, leading his business partner to exact revenge by kidnapping his wife. Bradley soon finds himself fighting for the life of his wife, his unborn child, and even himself in the ghastly, brutal depths of Cell Block 99.
The shocking transformation of Vaughn as Bradley needs to be seen to be believed. One of the most extraordinary performances by a male lead I’ve seen in a long time can be summed up by writer/director, S. Craig Zahler, “Rarely do actors so convincingly transform themselves to the degree Vaughn does in this picture, a performance that is equally masculine and nuanced.”
When examining all elements of the film, I realized that while the cinematography isn’t ambitious, the score is comprised of simple soul songs by the O’Jays and CGI wasn’t used during the brutal brawl scenes, the film still feels cutting edge. It’s the simplicity that really sets this film apart. “All of these brawls are performed by him (Vince Vaughn) and the other actors with very few cuts and zero post-production manipulation. I wanted these sequences to look and feel very different than those found in modern movies, and they do,” explains Zahler. The result is a gut-punch; simple, direct and powerful.
Some twists and cast surprises like Udo Kier as a slippery hitman and Don Johnson as the polished Warden Tuggs add fuel to the fire. Some of the greatest fight scenes ever committed to film remain deep-rooted in your sub-conscious long after the credits roll.
Sometimes, I leave a theater thinking a film had everything and yet, it still lacked an intuitive emotional core. Brawl In Cell Block 99 is a physically-menacing film that ditches the frustration, anger, and heartache of the American dream for the primordial quest for survival.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 opens in limited release October 6th and will be available digitally and on-demand October 13th.
Written by Julianna Brudek.