Brawl in Cell Block 99 follows the story of Bradley Thomas as he goes from car mechanic to drug runner to convicted felon locked up in the most putrid of detention facilities. Thomas turns to his friend Gil after being fired in order to give his wife the life that they’ve both dreamed for. 18 months later, Gil forces Thomas into carrying out a run for the Mexican cartel. Needless to say, things go wrong. Thomas ends up in prison, where he learns that the cartel has his pregnant wife hostage and is threatening to amputate the legs of her unborn child if Thomas refuses to pay his debt by murdering a man in the titular cell block 99, which turns out to be a “prison within the prison”, situated deep in the underbelly of the Redleaf maximum security prison. Sounds like the schlockiest of schlock, doesn’t it?
And it is. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is an unapologetic grindhouse gore-fest straight out of the late 70s and early 80s. It’s everything a midnight theater goer could ever ask for – a stoic protagonist whose main language is witticism, practical effects and well-choreographed, minimally edited fight scenes that almost always end with the blood-curdling sound of bones snapping or flesh hitting concrete. The sound design in particular makes Brawl absolutely devastating; every punch has weight, every smack with the baton practically sends a jolt through the viewer’s body, hell, even the electric belt that Thomas is forced to wear in the later parts of the movie manages to gives us a pretty clear idea of how painful the current running through the prisoner’s body is based on Vince Vaughn’s reaction and the low buzzing sound that the belt itself emits whenever it is switched on.
But what is it that sets this film apart, and what makes it worth a watch for a squeamish viewer who doesn’t find themselves grinning ear to ear as Vince Vaughn takes blows to the face like a champ and doles out terrifying retaliatory strikes? Well for one, unlike most movies that fall into the grindhouse category, Brawl in Cell Block 99 doesn’t forego character development. The first hour of the film is spent slowly building Bradley Thomas, showing us his struggles, his moral compass. He isn’t a thug because he chose to be one or because that’s how he is by nature. Bradley is an intelligent man, sharp and street smart, but it just so happens that violence is one of the things he’s good at and always comes back to haunt him. We learn he used to be a boxer and a boozer before the events of the film and that’s always a recipe for disaster. His past is never completely revealed, but his demeanor and effect on those around him are enough to tell us all we need to know. The opening scene sets him up perfectly, as his manager is visibly afraid of Bradley while laying him off. The first we see of Bradley Thomas is his terrifying exterior – a tall man, muscled like a bull and sporting a tattoo of a cross on the back of his clean shaven head. The viewer senses the tension in the air from the very beginning as we expect him to attack his boss. But nothing happens. In fact, we see Bradley having a friendly exchange with an elderly black man on his way out. Suddenly we’re not quite sure what to think of Bradley. Is he a white supremacist? Is he a felon, or indeed a felon in the making? This is the way the entire first half of the movie goes, we’re constantly shown a new side of the protagonist, we come to understand his reasoning and see him as a decent human being caught up in an unfathomably horrible situation. Time and time again director S. Craig Zahler raises the stakes and makes it seem like Bradley is about to do something horrible to someone innocent, but nothing ever comes of this manufactured tension. It’s as if he’s poking and prodding the viewer’s mind, toying with our preconceptions and biases and prompting us to look deeper and harder rather than falling back into character cliches and notions of how a person should look and behave.
This, of course, would not have been possible if it weren’t for a monumental performance by Vince Vaughn. His towering physique makes him as formidable as a tank on the battlefield, his very presence intimidates both the audience and the characters on screen. There is rage bubbling underneath the calm exterior of Bradley at all times, terrifying anger that threatens to make its existence known every time Vaughn’s character is pushed to the edge. Bradley is a fully fleshed out character thanks to Vaughn and his ability to add meaning to every sullen stare and brooding moment of silence. It also helps that he’s always filmed in a way that accentuates his exceptional height. Bradley looks like a giant walking among men. He also sounds like one, thanks again to the brilliant sound design, which makes each step feel like the slow approach of King Kong.
From a technical side, Brawl in Cell Block 99‘s camera work makes every scene feel cramped; the lighting in particular makes his multiple cells feel that bit more hopeless, like a cage that is growing smaller and dirtier. The film has a desaturated look with emphasis on the blues and the blacks, making the atmosphere extremely oppressive and consuming. The Redleaf facility in particular looks and feels like the point of no return for the character, a black hole that will completely disintegrate him. The beauty of this film lies in its appropriate cinematography. Don’t expect any pretty wide-angle views of rolling meadows.
Overall, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a well-crafted film that shows a genuine love and respect for the works that inspired it and paved its way, but also, perhaps even more importantly, for the art of film. You might not agree with the extreme violence depicted in its later stages, but there’s no denying that there is a certain stark beauty in the gratuity of its gory action sequences. Hats off to Vince Vaughn as well for managing to escape the tight grasp of his goofy fat guy type cast and doing some incredible work in a new role.