Brawl in Cell Block 99 is an absolute knockout: scuzzy, thrilling, and brutally violent, it’s the perfect next step for S. Craig Zahler, and showcases an incredible against-type turn from Vince Vaughn.
He stars as Bradley Thomas, an enigmatic figure who’s filled with matrimonial love and possessed of almost unspeakable rage, although he’s learned to control it with careful thought. When we first meet him, Bradley is casually deconstructing a car in response to a pretty nasty day at work – the intended response is clear: what could those hands do to flesh and bone?
Zahler is content to linger voyeuristically on Bradley’s life for a while, only landing him in prison after a fudged drugs drop at the 40 minute mark. Whilst there, in a cushy medium-security joint, he’s informed of a terrible turn of events which leaves him with an ultimatum: to save the ones he loves, he must somehow reach the secure block of a maximum-security prison and kill an inmate. It’s time for Bradley to get a little nasty.
|80s-esque exploitation villains...|
The real mastery in Brawl comes from Zahler’s sheer determinative pacing. As with Bone Tomohawk, he’s able to spiral the action into darkness throughout, crafting a picture in which the situation appears to get exponentially worse with every passing second. In this way, we as the audience are constantly experiencing freefall: thrilling, uncontrollable, and unhinged. It also means that at certain points the plot transitions from ‘believable’, to ‘somewhat believable’, to ‘unbelievable’, to ‘pure fantasy’; but by the time we realise the entire affair is up shit creek in cloud-cuckoo land, it’s far too late – kinda like when a frog is placed in cold water and the hob is turned on until it boils.
And when the water boils, by god, it boils: Brawl in Cell Block 99 features some of the most disturbing violence in recent cinema memory. When the titular confrontation finally comes into focus, we’re really gunning for Vaughn to pummel the living shit out of those that have made his life hell; but by the time it was all over, I was literally feeling nauseous. Faces are scraped across floors until they melt to the ground; heads are stamped into toilets until they come clean from bodies; arms are snapped so far back that bones shoot like daggers out of elbows; and spines are broken with the ease of a knife through butter. The production team do a great job of using oozy gory prosthetics and exploding rubber craniums to retro effect, practically throwing buckets of fake blood onto the lens. In the US, it’s not been submitted for rating – but the MPAA would almost certainly have to slap it with an NC-17.
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Vaughn is nothing short of a revelation here. The same man who played countless ‘overweight, middle-aged jokers’ is now sporting a giant black cross tattoo on his bald head, and strutting through cell-blocks, crushing the skulls of innocent police officers. He may still be a wisecracker, but through the humour, and the slapstick punchlines of blood, Bradley is a character with a raging inner fire: a fierce moral core, frought with violent tendencies and yet tempered by love for his wife and unborn child. Genre heavyweights Don Johnson and Udo Kier also put in fantastically camp performances – reminiscent of 80s exploitation flicks. Combined with an unexpected, foot-tapping neo-soul soundtrack, Brawl packs far more punches than it has any right to.
Running at a whopping 132 minutes, Brawl in Cell Block 99 never drags. It’s a lean, mean, angry freefall: becoming ever more deranged and violent before smacking onto the concrete and splattering over the screen in all its icky glory. Is it grindhouse? Or is it arthouse? Who cares: it’s fucking awesome.
|Brawl in Cell Block 99 gets 4 stars!|