Brawl in Cell Block 99

review by paul dunne

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Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a shocking film, in many ways. The film opens with Bradley Thomas’s (Vince Vaughn) life falling apart before his eyes. However, writer-director S. Craig Zahler avoids the glamorisation and dramatization of these events, letting Vaughn’s stoic yet stirred performance shine through. The astonishingly slow paced first act eventually stumbles into the crux of the action and the film’s title.

Bradley’s ‘’man of principle’’ persona is put to the test as he is blackmailed, leading to a series of violent encounters within prison. ‘Violent encounters’ is putting it nicely, what ensues for roughly over half of the runtime is excellent fight choreography, Bradley’s mixture of intelligent resourcefulness and raw power, and some of the most disturbing viscera I’ve ever seen on screen.

I thought years of violent video games and horror films had numbed my experience of traumatic events to a certain extent, but Brawl in Cell Block 99 managed to unlock my insensitivity. Zahler constructs his film excellently for the most part, I have an issue with his focus on diegetic songs that are meant to have thematic or textual value but never deliver meaningfully. However, the juxtaposition of sluggish expository scenes with hyper-violent action is extremely effective. The usual stuffy atmosphere of press screenings was burst through with shock, disgust, and audible squeamishness. Zahler’s pacing is near-perfect, lulling the audience into expectations of emotional drama until punching us in the gut with gore.

Vaughn’s performance is outstanding in all aspects of his character, he channels the integrity of a family man pushed beyond his limits and then delivers the intense physicality the role demanded. Vaughn brawls with the best of them and exposes an aspect to his acting I did not think he was capable of. The supporting cast deliver as much as they can, with flat archetypes and matching dialogue ultimately serving to buffer Vaughn’s performance. However, this choice works in my opinion as Vaughn shines despite my doubts due to his previous forays into dramatic roles. It’s a welcome surprise to watch and enjoy Vaughn’s dry wit contrasted with explosive altercations.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a unique film. While I would attribute elements of it to the genres of action, thriller, and crime, it defies most of the expectations that those genres carry. If you can stomach shocking violence and want to see something different, with Vince Vaughn at his best, then this film warrants viewing.