There are certain movies where the title really lays it all out there for you, like Zach and Miri Make a Porno (which director Kevin Smith reportedly sold to The Weinstein Company based on just the title alone), last year’s Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and this weekend’s fantastically blunt Brawl in Cell Block 99. The economy of language here is really quite incredible, because, in just five short words, it tells you so much. “Brawl” lets you know right away that there will be action and violence, and that there are a lot of people in the mix, as opposed to a “fight” which is usually between two people. As you can see in the Cell Block 99 trailer, the footage clues us into the setting, a prison, a big one, apparently, with a lot of cell blocks, so right away, just in saying those five words, you know exactly what you’re in store for, and it sure won’t be a date movie. What’s also great about the title is that it tricks the viewer into thinking it might be a simple popcorn flick, but there is oh so much more to this movie, while still providing the brutally fascinating bone-crunching thrills you came for.
There aren’t many complexities to the story, which follows an intimidating man named Bradley Thomas, played by Vince Vaughn, a mechanic who comes into work one day only to find out that he’s been fired. A towering man with a mysterious cross tattoo on the back of his shaved head, Bradley’s presence seems to always give everyone around him pause. He never appears outwardly violent, but you can see it’s beneath the surface, which is why his co-workers seem to be walking on eggshells when he gets the news. At home, his life isn’t much better, finding out that his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been cheating on him, leading to an intense scene where Bradley literally beats up a car, as we see all of his anger come out at once. After things settle down, he forgives his wife and they start on a new path together, albeit an illegal one, with Bradley taking a job for an old friend, Gil (Marc Blucas), as a drug runner. This noticeably turns their lives around, as we see them living in a much nicer house, with new vehicles, the whole nine yards… until it all goes to shit on a run gone bad, and Bradley is arrested… but it gets even worse than that.
What he thinks will be just a few years of hard time, turns into seven years, and then he’s paid a visit in jail by a mysterious man (Udo Kier) who reveals that he works for the Mexican drug dealers he was involved in that gunfight with, who now claim he owes them millions for that deal gone bad. So they kidnap his wife and force him to kill an inmate for them, and his debt will be cleared and his wife will be set free. The big problem with this is the inmate he’s supposed to kill is in Cell Block 99, reserved for the worst of the worst, leading Bradley to go on a brutal rampage to be sent deeper into the bowels into the corrections system, to save his wife before it’s too late.
One of the things that always struck me about Vince Vaughn when he was coming up as a comedic talent was how tall he was. It doesn’t always come across on the big screen, but it still isn’t every day when your leading comedic actor is 6’5″ and could seemingly just as easily be playing shooting guard in the NBA instead of cracking jokes. Bradley Thomas is quite simply a role Vince Vaughn was born to play, even delivering the effective comedic moments in a style that’s nowhere near his usual comedic delivery. Vince Vaughn delivers a towering, career best performance, delivering such nuance to an extremely complex character, who is wholly intimidating without being scary, laying everything he has on the line so his family can survive and have a better life. His journey is monumentally compelling on so many levels, from his determination to save an unfaithful wife to his physical abilities as a former boxer, and his ridiculous threshold for pain.
I was lucky enough to see this with a sold out crowd as the opening night film of Beyond Fest in Los Angeles last weekend, and it was most certainly a vocal audience that was most appreciative of this brutal film that seems to also pay homage to Steven Seagal and his arm-breaking films from the 1980s and 1990s like Above the Law. There were multiple times where the bone-breaking action was so brutal the whole audience was literally screaming in both disgust and giddy grindhouse delight. This film comes from writer-director S. Craig Zahler, who made his feature film debut with the critically-acclaimed Western Bone Tomahawk, and signed on last year to write the Puppet Master reboot. If you weren’t a fan of his style on Bone Tomahawk, you’re probably not going to dig this movie either, which will hit theaters in limited release and VOD formats October 6 from RLJ Entertainment. But if you’ve been craving an old-school grindhouse throwback, you simply cannot miss Brawl in Cell Block 99.