Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) doesn't start fights. He's "a finisher" who also happens to be psychotic.
An ex-boxer and auto mechanic with a penchant for violence, Thomas takes a job as a drug courier, a risk that ends up with him in jail after a job goes wrong. Once there, he finds out his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) has been kidnaped, and the only way Bradley can save his family is beating everyone up in jail until he gets to cell block 99.
Welcome to the action lovers delight zone, ladies and gentlemen.
Vaughn needed Brawl in Cell Block 99 badly. A comedic actor strung out on bad scripts and career choices, Vaughn swung hard and missed on HBO's True Detective Season 2, a show that tried to exploit the actor's dark side and missed. Writer/director S. Craig Zahler handed the 47-year-old funny guy the role of a lifetime here. Thomas would be a challenge for most actors, but Vaughn leans into the role of this anti-hero that you can't help but root for.
With a shaved head carrying a giant crucifix tattoo on the back of his skull, Vaughn's 6'5" frame cuts an imposing figure as an ex-con who is told repeatedly by prison wardens like Don Johnson's Tuggs to not get into any trouble, but decides to get into fights, because he's "psychotic". The truth is, Thomas is merely a man trying to save his family, albeit through the most gruesome means necessary.
If you think you know what gruesome fight scenes look like on film, Zahler and stunt coordinator Corey Pierno have a surprise for you with Brawl in Cell Block 99's action sequences. In the trailer, you see Vaughn aggressively dismantle a car after he finds out his wife has cheated on him. He tears the hood off the car and hurls it across the grass. That's nothing compared to what happens about an hour into the film.
For the first half of the film, Zahler and Vaughn cut an intriguing yet familiar picture about a man who makes bad decisions and punches his way out, but a certain scene involving Thomas and a prison guard (Mustafa Shakir) flips the entire film on its head.
From there, arms are snapped in half, skulls are literally crushed, and several other bone fragments are broken in a series of relentless yet impressively filmed fight scenes. Taking a page from the John Wick film universe (films directed by a former stuntman), the camera pans out during Brawl's hand to hand combat moments, so the audience knows it is Vaughn and not a trio of stunt performers throwing the punches and taking the hits. It's a startling and effective way to shoot a fight, and it keeps the bloody battles from becoming tiresome.
I couldn't get enough of the realistic expressions on the characters faces as they were struck by a baton or elbow, before getting flipped to the ground. It looks and sounds real while also tapping into the gory movies from the 1970's that used props so well that it made the film look like a pulpy comic book.
At the center of the action is Vaughn, who is a revelation as Thomas. This is what you call an actor taking a role and going for broke, throwing everything on the table. Forget what you think you know about the actor and his abilities, because you're not ready for this flick. Stuck in mediocre mainstream comedy doldrums for years, Vaughn needed Zahler more than the filmmaker needed the actor. It's like Denzel Washington in Training Day, but even better, because you've never seen this side of the actor before.
Vaughn was great in Mel Gibson's Oscar nominated Hacksaw Ridge, but he's in 99% of Cell Block 99's scenes playing a character unlike anything he's undertaken before. Washington's menace in Antoine Fuqua's gang thriller wasn't as startling as Vaughn's work here. Calling it his best work is an understatement; Vaughn's acting in Cell Block 99 is one of the most underappreciated roles from the past five years.
Once Thomas lands in Red Leaf, which is overseen by Johnson (chewing scenery like a boss), things get bad very quick, which only means the brutality gets amped up 1,000 watts. Trust me when I tell you this movie is NOT for the squeamish. If you think Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez are violent storytellers, they have nothing on Zahler's blood drunk methods.
If you wanted a humanized Terminator thrown into a prison with nothing to lose except blood, sweat, tears, and family, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is your film.
Yes, there's a little heart thrown into the finale of the film, even if it is a fleeting moment. Yes, Zahler has a story to tell here, but the main theme is the most provocative. Just like he stated in his thrilling western, Bone Tomahawk, Zahler wants to talk to you about the violence that lives inside every single person, and how easy it is to tap into.
I praise the director and star for staying true to their brutal methods all the way up until the very end and the credits. If you need a happy ending, go watch a Stallone film from the 1980's. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is hardcore madness with a need to impose its will.
Thank you, S. Craig Zahler, for resurrecting Vaughn's career. You'll never look at the actor the same way after this film.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 leaves a dent in you.
*The film is currently available on Blu Ray, DVD, and at your neighborhood Redbox as well as Video on Demand.