BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 Review: 9 out of 10 (Prison Breaking)
BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is a fantastic return from writer/director S. Craig Zahler. Following the horror western BONE TOMAHAWK, this is a take on the prison film genre that feels like a 70s grindhouse throwback. Zahler continues his thread of hyper-violence here, but also offers a consistent storytelling pace in his screenwriting that amps tension to a fever pitch.
Vince Vaughn stars here in something so far outside his previous man-child roles that it is remarkable he is the same actor at all. Bradley Thomas is an ex-boxer who seems to be a man with a violent criminal past. His accent is distinctly Southern but indeterminate. He is a street smart and savvy brawler who has a quick wit and a penchant for biting sarcasm. When Bradley loses his job and realizes his troubled marriage is about to expire, he goes back to a friend to work as a drug runner. When bad goes to worse on the job one day, Bradley finds himself badly hurt and thrown in prison, where his enemies force him to commit acts of violence as a last-ditch effort to save the ones he loves. In an odd twist, Bradley must move downward through the prison system--not unlike a trip through hell--to achieve his goal. It is an awfully original riff on a "fight your way out" action film.
Vince Vaughn is a big fella--and Zahler leverages his imposing frame throughout this film. Shooting him from below and at odd angles, Bradley Thomas is a hulking man who intimidates everyone he faces. Though he is brutal, he is also sensitive, funny, and loyal. He also has a clear ethical and moral boundary. It makes for a nice anti-hero that is easy to get behind and root for when the punches start to fly. Don Johnson offers another great performance (I loved him in COLD IN JULY) as a brutal warden of the maximum security prison that houses Thomas. When the action does come--prepare for some bone-crunching and blood-letting that is unrelenting. Add in some tunes from Butch Tavares and the O'Jays and you have an exploitation film that feels like a drive-in late night feature from 1974. For what this movie sets out to do, it does pretty damn well. Zahler's ability to repackage genre into new forms of brutal pulpy is remarkable. And Vince Vaughn has fought out of his old image of unfunny man-child to flat out bad-ass.