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Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
Directed By: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Marc Blucas
Rating: NR (Suggested R for Brutal Violence, Language and Drug References)
TMM: 4 out of 5 Stars
Strengths: Acting, Writing, Directing
Weaknesses: Special Effects, Lighting
Bradley Thomas is a down on his luck ex-boxer forced to turn to drug running to make ends meet; through a series of misadventures he winds up in prison. But it gets worse- his pregnant wife is kidnapped by the cartel that Bradley used to work for, and unless Bradley can kill a high-profile inmate, who's being kept in the high security ward of the prison, the cartel’s surgeon will perform an experimental procedure to hew the limbs from his unborn child.
Last year, I checked out Zahler’s “Bone Tomahawk” at the recommendation of a friend. The violence in “Tomahawk” was absolutely brutal, and though the story was somewhat slow and probably could’ve been trimmed by a half hour, the movie was worth watching (provided you’ve got a strong stomach.) When I learned of “Brawl”, I was eager to see if Zahler could live up to “Tomahawk”, and I was not disappointed. “Brawl” is better than “Tomahawk” in many ways; it’s an epic tale of violence, revenge, and justice.
Bradley Thomas is a hulking ex-boxer with a large black cross tattoo on the back of his skull. In the first scene, Bradley is fired from his job, and upon arriving home and he finds his wife (Jennifer Carpenter, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) talking on the phone with another man. After a brief confrontation, she admits she’s been cheating. Bradley tells her to wait inside, and as soon as she closes the door to their house, he begins to beat his wife’s car with his bare fists. He breaks a window, pulls out the headlights, rips the hood off and throws it across the yard. The way Bradley does this is methodical, slow; he takes his time; makes every punch count. It’s the way he does everything. Bradley slowly tearing apart this car piece by piece becomes a metaphor for the whole film.
His anger abates, and Bradley goes inside to talk to his wife. He’s not angry with her, he knows things have been bad, and he promises he's going to do everything in his power to make things better. He goes to an old acquaintance (Marc Blucas of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) who helps him get into the drug running business. Time passes, and Bradley is at the top of his game again; his wife is happy, pregnant- their lives are going the way they want.
But alas, good things are not meant to last.
During a drop, two new runners accompany Bradley. Bradley senses something is wrong and suggests they walk away, but the new runners refuse. Cops descend on the smugglers as Bradley watches from afar. One of the cops takes a bullet, and Bradley knows he can’t stand idly by. He approaches the drug runners from behind and kills them. The cops then arrest Bradley and he’s sent to jail (the judge gives him a light sentence for helping the cops.) As Bradley arrives in jail, he receives a message from the cartel: you killed our men, we’re going to cut the limbs from your unborn child unless you can kill someone for us- an ex-cartel member who’d ratted them out, who is being kept in the most secure location of the prison Bradley is being held. Bradley agrees to kill the man to save his wife.
(End of Spoilers)
Vince Vaughn deserves far more credit than he gets. In the underwhelming second season of “True Detective” he gave a standout performance, and in “Hacksaw Ridge” he did the same, but this movie is a milestone for him. Vaughn absolutely kills it (no pun intended) as the stoic, straightforward, no-nonsense, anti-hero Bradley; he dominates every frame of the screen, he has more presence than any of the other actors, by far. Even veteran actor Don Johnson (“Miami Vice”, “Django Unchained”), whom plays Warden Tuggs, pales in comparison to Vaughn.
The deliberate pacing in this movie allows for the characters to breathe and adjust to their environments before making rational decisions on what to do next. Though the word ‘Brawl’ is in the title, none of the violence is unwarranted; all of it is necessary to the story. The style of violence, too, is deliberate. The meticulous way that Bradley destroys the car at the beginning of the film is how he fights the entire movie. Bradley is an ex-boxer; he defends himself when he knows he’s going to take a hit, then packs a wallop when finds his opening. The violence is slow, but so brutal. There are broken limbs, bashed faces, beatings with barbells, headshots and much more. The camera likes to linger on each hit, making you feel the impact of every blow Bradley takes or deals out. The taught thriller builds towards the end, gathering speed as Bradley works his way through different cellblocks towards his mark.
The characters in this film are all believable, and though they commit crimes and horrible acts of violence the writing makes us sympathetic towards them. Vince Vaughn’s character in particular stays on a straight and narrow path- he knows what he has to do, and he never strays from that path, even if it means a lot of pain for him. He wants to do right by his wife, and nothing will stand in his way; he is a very commendable character in that regard. The tattoo of the cross, featured prominently throughout the film, seemed to be a symbol of a kind of sainthood achieved by the martyrdom Bradley goes through.
There’s no way to beat around the bush here; some of the effects look really bad. Really, this is the only issue I had with this film. There are some scenes where the victims of Bradley’s beatings are clearly mannequins. It is quite distracting, and honestly takes the viewer out of the movie a bit. Strangely, I said the same thing about some of the special effects in “Bone Tomahawk”. Zahler needs to find someone else to do his practical effects.
The movie is entertaining as all get out; intense, thrilling, satisfying, and even a little emotional at times. This is one thriller that has, sadly, flown under the radar, but it is well worth checking out if you get the chance. If you like this, keep your eyes on the horizon; Zahler has reteamed with Vaughn, Carpenter, and Johnson (and added Mel Gibson) for his next film, “Dragged Across Concrete”, which, if the title is any indication of content, could provide another bloody thrilling ride.
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