In 2015, S. Craig Zahler’s horror/western mashup, Bone Tomahawk, placed him on moviegoers’ radars. Zahler’s low-budget debut wowed audiences, appeared on many best-of-the-year lists, and left people hungry for the writer/director’s next project. He’s back and ready to face the hype with his latest film, an action/crime/thriller titled Brawl in Cell Block 99, and it’s just as twisted and violent as Zahler’s fans could hope for.
Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is having a bad day. First, his boss fires him from his shitty job. Shortly after, he returns home and discovers that his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), is seeing someone else. At 6”4, Bradley is a behemoth of a man, and he takes out his anger with a terrifying display of strength. Bare-fisted, he pummels his wife’s car into bits like he’s in a Street Fighter II bonus round. Bradley also sports a large cross tattoo on the back of his scalp, and showing the virtues of a man who would make that commitment, decides to forgive Lauren and give marriage one last go.
Flash forward 18-months and life is good for the Thomas family. They’ve leveled-up from their modest home into a massive house, and they’re expecting their first child. Their new lifestyle comes at a price, however: Bradley is back working in the criminal underworld, running crystal and coke for a local dealer (Marc Blucas). One night, he is out leading a drug run with a sketchy crew, when the police show up. What began as a simple job turns into a Grand Theft Auto three-star wanted-level mission, and the showdown becomes a war zone. The cops win, they send Bradley to prison, and now a vicious drug lord wants the $3.2 million Bradley’s failure cost him. To ensure his cooperation, they kidnap Lauren and order him to assassinate a target in cell block 99. The problem is that cell block 99 isn’t in the prison where Bradley’s locked up. The only thing larger than Bradley’s mammoth frame are his wits, and he puts them both to use by finding creative ways to hurt people, track down his target, and save Lauren.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 has the same type of vibe as Bone Tomahawk. Sure, they’re different genres with different themes, but watching both films gave me the same sort of feelings. Both movies move forward at a very methodical place — like a roller-coaster inching its way toward a steep drop — before unleashing hyper-violent explosions. The film’s measured pace makes it all the more satisfying when the fists start flying, and like Bone Tomahawk, the violence is graphic AF. Eye gouges, snaps, breaks, splatters, and tears will leave viewers reeling in their seats. Stay clear of Brawl in Cell Block 99 if you’re the least bit squeamish.
Vaughn made a name for himself as a fast-talking wise-ass, and now at 47-years old, he makes for an intriguing action hero. At first I was put-off by his awkward fighting style; he’s lanky, seems like he’s wound up too tight, and looks like he’s pulling punches when he fights in close quarters. But eventually, Vaughn’s lumbering gait grew on me. I started to enjoy watching him shuffle forward, maiming anyone in his path. Vaughn comes off looking like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster channeling the spirit of Jason Statham. Bradley is slow and plodding, but the strength and precision he puts into annihilating his victims are thrilling to watch.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a perfect midnight madness-style movie. The premise is so pulpy, the stakes so ludicrous, and the violence so over-the-top that the film demands to be watched in front of wild audiences. Zahler’s crime thriller is a worthy follow-up to Bone Tomahawk, and establishes Vaughn as a legit genre movie tough guy. I can’t wait to see Zahler and Vaughn team up again in their next collaboration, Dragged Across Concrete.