Brawl in Cell Block 99 review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Vince Vaughn ventures far outside his comfort zone for Brawl in Cell Block 99. Way outside, as though he were visiting another planet. We’ve become so accustomed to him in mid-tier comedies that it’s a shock to see him in a brutal action film that goes the extra mile for the most gruesome of violence. But it’s all the more intriguing that once the shock of blood and guts wears off, Vaughn’s performance is genuinely stellar past being so surprising.
He plays former boxer/drug mule, Bradley Thomas, desperately trying to get his life together. After losing his auto-repair job and coming home to find his wife is cheating on him, this would seem like the point where he loses it. But he remains calm enough to take the violence out on his car and not his wife. After some bloody knuckles and car parts strewn on the lawn, he aims to fix his marriage calmly. This, unfortunately, means going back to being a drug mule. At first, it works. They have a better house and a kid on the way.
But one bad deal with some untrustworthy people leads to Bradley ending up in prison. Bradley aims to serve out his sentence calmly, but some unsavory gangsters won’t let him go so easily. If Bradley wants to keep his wife and children safe, he must be the baddest dude in the cell block to make it to a high-security prison and assassinate one of the most locked-up inmates.
And that’s all the plot you need as the rest of the film features Vaughn battling his way through prison, beating up guards and savagely brutalizing other prisoners. In the tradition of classic exploitation films, the violence is relentless. No broken bone, slashed chest, or crushed-in skull doesn’t carry a gritty bite. It’s an unapologetically vicious film that nearly replicates the same over-the-top gore of The Story of Ricky. The only thing holding it back from such levels is a ridiculous scene involving intestines being used to choke somebody. But it certainly comes close with a rather grizzly scene of Vaughn kicking someone’s face into the pavement and dragging it across with his foot.
The movie doesn’t try anything more than earnest grindhouse affair. There’s no deeper backstory to Bradley and Vaughn plays this characters perfectly in an understated manner. There’s rage inside him that he quietly denies, keeping it bottled for someone who truly deserves it. I love how this side of him only comes out in moments when he shields himself from chaos and quickly retreats when not needed. When he blows off steam in the yard, he comes inside a different man. When he senses a drug deal going south, he makes the tough call and turns himself in, silently and without emotion or resistance. He doesn’t need to grit his teeth for this role. Everyone else is already doing so as he snaps their limbs and rips out arteries.
To call this film an excuse for violence is not wrong, but what more can you expect from a film like Brawl in Cell Block 99. It promises exactly what one would expect; a bloody and gory battle of one man trying to the right thing outside by doing the wrong thing inside. It sure beats the plot of gangsters holding Bradley’s wife which becomes a little more farfetched as it progresses. It’s just more fun to watch Vaughn play a violent prisoner who squares off against tough inmates and a warden played by Don Johnson. There’s something so darkly amusing about such a premise. I admired the film from this aspect, but with a warning for violence that turns the picture more horror than action.