Two things before we begin:
1. This movie is emphatically not for everyone.
2. There are minor spoilers ahead. The film itself is full of more reveals and revelations. I try and say the bare minimum here, no more than any other reviews.
Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is a complicated man. Once he was boxer, and an alcoholic. Now he finds the idea of hitting another human being for fun or sport abhorrent. He is clean, and on the back of his shaved head sits a tattoo of a cross, forever emblazoned on his flesh and metaphorically hanging over his conscience. For the first few minutes that we see him in Brawl in Cell Block 99 he is a mechanic. Then, in a cruel and unexpected rug pull, he is a laid-off mechanic. He accepts his fate quickly and stoically, but there are glimpses of a rage barely contained. Arriving at home to share the bad news with his wife he is confronted with an even less manageable new reality: She has been cheating on him. For about three months.
If this seems like quite the flurry of hectic activity to open a movie, rest assured that a) it’s not even half of the set-up, and b) Brawl in Cell Block 99 is anything but a rushed, hectic movie. Writer-director S. Craig Zahler (the man behind 2015’s horror-Western Bone Tomahawk) takes his sweet time getting anything done—and that is absolutely meant as a compliment. Brawl is a prison movie, but it takes over 45 minutes of its 2 hour runtime before Bradley sets foot inside a prison. And then it’s not even the one that houses the eponymous cell block. Not at first, anyway.
But why does Bradley get sent down in the first place? After the opening sequence of events described above, Bradley promises to try and make things right with his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter). The wrinkles and layers to their relationship are drip-fed to us: They tried to have a baby, but there was a tragic miscarriage that drove a rift between them. Lauren, mistaking Bradley’s aloofness for a sign of possible infidelity and in a despairing search for some distraction, started seeing someone else—never considering it to be anything serious or meaningful. Once, they were both in servitude to the bottle. One of Bradley’s first questions to Lauren as they sit inside their house, sofas apart, is a concerned, ‘Did you fall off the wagon?’ She hadn’t. He is intent on forgiving and repairing what damage has been done. He sees Lauren’s infidelity as a consequence of the tragedy that befell them, something that affects them both negatively as a unit, rather than a transgression for which she is solely to blame. He thinks they should try for another baby. She agrees. But Bradley has just been laid off and Lauren’s work (substitute teacher) is not stable or lucrative enough to provide. Bradley decides to do what he promised he never would: Go back to running drugs for an associate. The deal goes South, badly, and he winds up in jail.
Though there is a foundation of a family drama here, that is not the main story that Zahler is trying to tell. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a violent, pulpy, genre mashup that will probably be described by most as an action movie. That’s not quite accurate, but the action contained within it will rightfully dominate any discussion about it. Because, my, what action. This isn’t The Raid, or John Wick—the fight scenes here, almost all bare handed with the occasional gun play or improvised weaponry thrown in, are carefully executed and choreographed, as well as being shot meticulously to show us exactly how the combatants are moving in relation to each other, but they are the opposite of flashy. Where The Raid and Wick go extravagant or balletic, Brawl is true to its name. These are short, ugly bursts of violence. Bradley knows what he is doing with his fists, and he is not telling a story with them. He is causing maximum damage in the least amount of time. If this sounds like a contradiction to his previously stated aversion to violence, just know that after he lands in prison he is put into a position where he basically has no choice but to use his terrifying gifts to deadly end. And no, it’s not a prison boxing competition, much to the chagrin of one eager guard. It’s something far, far darker.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is one of the more engrossing cinematic experiences I’ve had in recent years. Fair warning however that this is a dark and grim movie indeed. It unfolds like a tragedy and the violence on display is both brutal and explicit. I am fairly well desensitised to onscreen bloodletting. By and large it does not bother me. But there were a few times where I actually audibly and physically reacted to the stuff that happens here. That’s partially due to the fact that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Zahler’s script and the actors’ performances flesh out these characters and their motivations excellently, so every bone crack is backed up by the emotional connection we have to the characters, as well as the awesomely tangible feeling of dread hanging over everything. The human factor has as much of an impact as the practical effects. As everything heads towards the inescapable and final showdown, the shadows grow closer and the noose tightens. I repeat my earlier point: This movie is not for everyone. If you cannot stomach violence, don’t watch Brawl in Cell Block 99.
But despite this unrelenting grimness, there is so much to love about this movie. For fans of wonderfully composed cinematography, the frames here bleed symbolism and immerse you into their characters’ spaces—both inner and outer. Appreciators of great, witty, and spare hard-boiled dialogue will find enjoyment too. The languid pace allows the writing to breathe and for everything to settle in before it all comes tumbling down. Action movie fans will delight in the fight scenes, even as they might cringe away from a few shots. And Vince Vaughn fans? Or, well, just fans of great acting in general? You will have a fantastic time. Vaughn is a revelation here. Effectively communicating a tragic past, a controlled sea of rage, and a steadfast determination, he fully embodies this role. All of it is believable. He puts his hulking frame to alternatively subtle and horrifying use, and his face and eyes become finely tuned tools. It’s enough to make one think they’re witnessing the start of a Vince Vaughnassance. It would be well earned.
One final note: There is a trailer for this movie, but don’t watch it. Just dive in.