Director: S Craig Zahler Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier Running time: 132 mins
Vince Vaughn: Skull Cruncher. Liberator of eyeballs, improvised body disposal expert. That isn’t the full extent of Vaughn’s MO in S Craig Zahler’s unflinchingly violent Brawl in Cell Block 99 but it’s a start.
The Dodgeball, Swingers and Wedding Crashers star here plays Bradley Thomas, a man with a particular set of highly effective skull bashing skills. He’s a recovering alcoholic and his wife (Dexter alumni Jennifer Carpenter) is fighting a drug addiction of her own. They both just want to start over, kick their bad habits and raise a family. In a prologue that’s indicative of the different shades of Brawl, we see Bradley fired from his job, tear apart a car and proceed to have a heartfelt conversation about wanting this better life with his wife.
Aiming to make that dream happen he reconnects with an old contact, takes up work as as a drug runner and before long our man is locked up in prison. Worse still his now pregnant special lady friend is the target of Bradley’s scorned former drug associates. Only by getting a transfer to a maximum security prison and murdering an inmate confined to the the worst of the worst cell block (‘the prison within an prison’ as Don Johnson’s casually callous warden proclaims) can our man ensure his wife and their unborn child survive.
That’s the set up and for a story with a run-time north of two hours, on paper Brawl could be reductively summed up as one man’s murderous, Taken style quest to protect his family. There’s more dramatic meat here than that line suggests though. Chiefly the film offers an intriguing vehicle for its leading man to sink his teeth into the role of a well meaning, tender and loving husband, father to-be and ruthless killing machine.
As actorly left turns go there’s some common ground with Matthew McConaughey’s transition from rom-com poster mainstay to coldblooded hit-man in Killer Joe. Vaughn’s very good here, utilizing his towering presence, with a kind of dead fixed stare one would possibly expect to see on a Mafia hitman before taking one in the head, to dominate every scene. For a title that could have inspired an 89 minute exploitation gore fest, Zahler is more interested in taking time to observe his characters, their motivations and the brutal end results that ensue. Plenty of time is satisfying spent watching Vaughn react calmly but forcefully to a series of increasingly dire situations all the while taking each set back as little more than an obstacle to ensure his family’s survival. There’s a pleasing level of restraint regarding Vaughn’s emotional display. Only once do we see him come close to lowering his guard (outside of scenes where he’s required to rip people apart) and when it comes it feels deeply earned.
Key to this is the considerable time and space afforded to him to delve into a part that requires tenderness, a strong sense of morality and a persistent sense of powerful rage and brute force kept in check. In addition to lending Bradley an air of stoic decency Vaughn also needs to convince as a one man swat team. This he does seamlessly. Adding the the picture’s success any moment between Vaughn and Carpenter (especially one restrained but beautifully simple exchange late in the film) gives the story its emotional wallop. We need to believe in their relationship for the bone crunching rampage to hold up. Crucially and despite limited time together on screen the two entirely convince as a couple who’ve shared a life together, a checkered one at that, long before the opening credits.
This director-writer has form here. His first film, 2015’s grizzly Bone Tomahawk produced one of most unforgettable pieces of human dismemberment I’ve ever stomached. It was also a resonant piece of work populated by articulate characters and played by a strong cast. Similarly here he creates a three dimensional killer while not shying away from the shattered remains of what used to be a man’s face. Despite this very little of the two hour plus run time features violence. As with Bone Tomahawk when the violence does come it’s unapologetically gruesome and never glorified.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is an interesting curio. A very simple story about a violent, and often sympathetic man doing vicious things to protect his family. It’s not a full on exploitation movie as the title might suggest, nor an introspective study of a violent man. In any case it does deliver true to it’s title with enough brawl for it’s buck by the closing credits.
(3 / 5)