Now this is more like it.
By a show of hands, please let me know how many of you have quietly wanted to watch Vince Vaughn, with a huge crucifix tattooed on the back of his shaven, moony head, beat a car into scrap with his bare fists? I’m going to assume that most hands have suddenly shot skywards. And if that’s the case, congratulations – Brawl in Cell Block 99 is for you. I mean, let’s be frank here: Brawl in Cell Block 99 is for all of us.
After smashing up the car, Vaughn’s character, Bradley Thomas, sits on his couch and talks to his wife, who has been cheating on him. He knows this because he caught her after being laid-off from his auto-repair job. All in all, a bad day. But fixable. He tells his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), that they can save their marriage. They can have a baby. He can resume his old, well-paying job transporting drugs. These are his terms, and he asks if she’ll, I quote, “abide” by them. He just totalled her car and smashed her phone to bits, but at least he asked. As you’ve probably deduced from the title, Bradley’s plan does not go as smoothly as he thought it would.
This is all brought to us by S. Craig Zahler, the clearly addled mind behind 2015’s awesomely awful horror-western Bone Tomahawk. The man is quite clearly a genius. And the beauty of his deranged imagination is that it toys with your expectations; of an actor, of a genre, of what might be acceptable material to film in the twenty-first century. Brawl in Cell Block 99, a grisly grindhouse prison-action drama, makes sweet art from the stomping of skulls and the peeling of flesh from a man’s face. It is inspired, imaginative, sickening, intelligent, supremely well-executed trash – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Zahler seemingly had a hand in everything here. He also wrote the film, co-composed the original score, which is performed by the likes of Butch Tavares and the O’Jays, and choreographed the fight sequences with Drew Leary. And what fight sequences they are. Cinematographer Benji Bakshi and Zahler have a knack for keeping their characters’ entire bodies and faces in the frame, positioning the camera wherever you’d think it shouldn’t be, tracing these slabs of manhood as they lunge and swing at each other, each punch or stomp accompanied by that classic meat-slap sound effect. The violence is extreme but stylized; it isn’t for the squeamish, but the appeal of it is in the practical effects, and the sheer artistry of Bradley’s various encounters. The plot hints at in-ring experience, some training, and you can see it now and then. But this isn’t the sweet science. Vaughn uses his huge frame here better than he ever has before; that so many of his opponents are smaller, more nimble, just serves to highlight his hulking physicality.
You buy Bradley as a savage, as a controlling, violent, almost primitive man. But where this film succeeds so completely is in making you like him. You laugh at his dry turns of phrase, but his humour isn’t the thing you latch on to. You get flickers of his past life; that boxing experience, an implied alcoholism, a lost child, the drug-running job with an old associate (Marc Blucas). You start to wonder what kind of life this man has lived, what he’s suffered through, and you realise that you care. You care about him and his family. By the time he’s being fed through the meat-grinder of increasingly atrocious scenarios, you’re right there with him. You can smell the overflowing toilet; feel the cracked and peeling plaster beneath your fingers. All the blows he takes and deals out, they sting.
But they’re purposeful. From race-baiting Mexican bodybuilders to snapping the arms and legs of prison guards and inmates, Bradley never does anything without a reason. Says outright that he’d never hit someone without one, either. The writing convinces you of his belief in family values, in his country, in his own pride. He’s willing to suffer ungodly punishment for those beliefs. He’s a martyr. For all its splattery excess, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is, at its core, a story about a man who will do whatever it takes to protect the people he loves.
It’s an admittedly trite theme, but I was totally ******* sold. Zahler’s attention to detail and sensationally staged violence elevate the material, and it’s much smarter than you might think, but at the heart of this film is a terrific, terrifying performance from Vince Vaughn. There’s something so poignant about his portrayal of this bone-splintering madman that you can’t help but hope that he succeeds. I won’t spoil whether or not he does. But trust me – it’s worth finding out. This is thoughtful, brutal pulp fiction of an extremely distinguished variety. Get yourself locked up on Cell Block 99. Two hours there will change your life.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.