Fantastic Fest Review: "Brawl in Cell Block 99" (2017)

Updated on January 19, 2018
The official one-sheet theatrical poster for "Brawl in Cell Block 99."
The official one-sheet theatrical poster for "Brawl in Cell Block 99."

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Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk), Brawl in Cell Block 99 showcases a side of Vince Vaughn we have never seen before. Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) is having the worst possible day when he loses his job and finds out his wife Lauren (Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter) has been cheating on him for the past three months. Bradley decides to start over with his wife and takes a job as a runner for a local drug dealer named Gil (Marc Blucas) to make more money in an effort to have the family he’s always wanted. After 18 months, things turn south for Bradley when a run goes bad and he ends up in prison. Now that he won’t see his daughter being born Bradley is forced to dismantle his morals to save the one thing he still cares about by violently plowing through everything in his path behind bars.

The action thriller opens by revealing just how extreme Bradley’s temper can get when he loses his cool. After sending Jennifer Carpenter into the house, Vince Vaughn completely annihilates her car with his hands and fists Street Fighter II style by punching through the driver side window, ripping off her hood and throwing it across the lawn, and shoving his fist through one of her headlights. Between that crazy sequence and the moment Bradley arrives at the “minimum freedom” maximum security, Brawl spends an adequate amount of time fleshing out its on-screen characters. Some will see this as the film being too slow, but it actually makes you care about Bradley and Lauren and causes the ultra-violence found within the prison walls that much sweeter once they finally occur.

Bradley’s creamer metaphor for his marriage issues is relatable, well-written, and poignantly delivered by Vaughn. Vaughn’s performance adds layers of genuine emotion and authentic human behavior to make the Bradley Thomas character feel realistic. The determination Bradley shows is not only displayed in his actions, but also the little moments when the glimmer in Vaughn’s eyes illustrate the wheels turning in his head or utter frustration at his current predicament. His relationship with Anna is humorous and slightly heartwarming at times during the calm before the relentless storm. Sometimes Brawl in Cell Block 99 is haunting due to what transpires during the film’s quietest moments. Bradley’s isolation doesn’t really sink in until he wakes up during the early hours of his first day there crinkling the wrapping of the candy bar given to him as the sounds of hollow breathing, the bellowing of toilets flushing, and the echoing sobs of fellow inmates nearly drown out the mental countdown Bradley consistently comforts himself with counting the days before his daughter is born.

There are several plot holes and unexplained events that take place during Brawl in Cell Block 99 like why certain individuals suddenly find themselves in the same prison as Bradley or the reason Bradley gets arrested being totally ludicrous. While this is unfortunate it is easy to look past. You don’t see a film like Brawl and expect a totally coherent story or Oscar worthy performances, but it’s a pleasant surprise to see actors step out of their comfort zone and be surprisingly solid at it like Vaughn does here

Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas in "Brawl in Cell Block 99."
Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas in "Brawl in Cell Block 99."

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a bone breaking, face stomping, skull crushing experience that is viciously torturous to endure at times, but is lustfully satisfying when you’ve had a rough day. Vince Vaughn delivers what is perhaps his best performance to date as he portrays a character totally outside the fast-talking, one-liner spewing douchebag typecast he’s been known for his entire career.

4 stars for Brawl in Cell Block 99

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    © 2017 Chris Sawin

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