This essentially straight-to-digital movie, released back in October, slipped under my radar until very recently when I caught some online buzz about it. A serious Vince Vaughn performance is always an intriguing prospect, so I decided to give it a go, expecting a gritty prison movie with (given the director’s previous movie) some hardcore violence. I wasn’t wrong, but I didn’t expect it to be as damn good as it was.
Bradley Thomas (Vaughn), a former boxer and recently laid-off mechanic, makes ends meet (and soon after, flourishes) as a drug runner’s hired muscle. After a deal gone bad, Bradley lands in federal prison, where his enemies conspire to make his life miserable, threatening the life of his pregnant wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) if he doesn’t follow their increasingly cruel orders.
To say anything more would be to give the movie away, but the plot (while lean and effective) isn’t really the reason for Brawl in Cell Block 99. No, this movie exists to give the viewer a series of brutal, horrifying, riveting jolts. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is punctuated with bursts of bone-crunching violence, made all the more ferocious by its minimalist aesthetic – which eschews camera tricks, score, and stylization of any kind to deliver some of the most thrillingly savage beatdowns ever put to screen. These sequences, though not exactly pleasant to watch, provided me with a pulse-pounding adrenaline rush I hadn’t felt since The Raid: Redemption.
Ironically, it’s Brawl in Cell Block 99’s general restraint that causes these scenes to work as well as they do. Contrasted with the fits of ultra-violence is a deliberately paced plot, which is elegant in its simplicity. The story doesn’t lean on twists and turns to hold the audience’s attention; in fact, from the very beginning it instills a sense of inevitability. What keeps the movie going is its expertly choreographed pattern of tension and release, which reaches its climax in a viciously cathartic final reel.
Equally responsible for the movie’s success is Vaughn. He fully inhabits the lead role, sporting a shaved, tattooed head and a pudgy-but-strong prison bod. His Bradley is a reserved badass, who never says more than necessary and speaks in a soft, well-mannered Southern accent. The script gives him some terrifically crisp tough-guy dialogue, and between Vaughn’s assured delivery and impressive physical performance, Bradley’s threats aren’t shows of swagger, but deadly promises. Bradley might be the villain in a more conventional prison movie, but makes the perfect hero for this one. Just by virtue of having someone – anyone – whom he feels love for, he’s a better person than nearly all the degenerates who populate this movie, from sadistic guards to tyrannical wardens to conscienceless inmates.
When people think of modern grindhouse, their minds will likely flock to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s late-2000s string of parodies, beginning with Grindhouse and ending (for now) with Machete Kills. But Brawl in Cell Block 99 is the real thing, playing its bleak premise straight with enormous success. Because of its brutality, it’s a hard movie to recommend, but for those who can take it it’s a ruthlessly satisfying ride.