‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ is one of the best action films of this decade. It’s certainly one of the most memorable. While standouts like ‘John Wick’, ‘The Raid’ and the most recent ‘The Villainess’ bring to the table the grandly choreographed fight sequences and adrenaline-infused balletic gun battles to the table, making your average action film look like shite in lieu of the welcome raising of the bar. ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ opts for the road less travelled. Its bread and butter as an action film is unrelenting grit and pure brawn driven by an outstanding performance by Vince Vaughn.
‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ is overwhelmingly refreshing in its brutality, whilst peppering in some form of sweetener by putting an exploitation (or more like Blaxploitation given the entrancing R&B soundtrack) spin on affairs. A chill runs up my spine as I recall our writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s last film, ‘Bone Tomahawk’, which was a horror-inflected western with feats of violence and gore that turned my stomach inside out. I suspect he could have gone a similar route and left audiences reaching for vomit buckets. But there is much more fun to the grisly edge of this film, although it may still unhinge some jaws.
At its core, ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ has a relatively simple thrust but it has such a patience set I wondered if this was one of those films with misleading marketing. We meet Vaughn’s skinhead protagonist, Bradley Thomas as he is about to be let go from his job at a mechanic shop. The day worsens as he arrives home and discovers his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) has been cheating on him. What follows is the epitome of rage and our first inkling of Bradley in primordial Super Saiyan mode. He literally tears into his wife’s car with his bare hands. He resembles a darker incarnation of Luke Cage, and yes, during chunks of this film you will mistake him for a superhero. I’m still not sure that he isn’t.
We get a showcase of Vaughn’s brilliant range here as the fit of rage is followed by a more subdued moment as he has a heart to heart with his wife. It’s not been an easy marriage thus far but they give it another ago. Bradley also decides to get back into the drug game, which was obviously more lucrative for him. If decades of crime cinema have taught us anything, it’s that such life choices never work out. One job goes wrong in quite a bizarre way that seems to subtly play on skinhead leanings. He ends up in prison and is prepared to do his time. But complications emerge when his now-pregnant wife is kidnapped and he must leave a trail of broken bones and mangled faces in his wake in order to save them.
I don’t think I liked Bradley as much I was impressed by his single-minded determination. It’s almost like watching a Predator movie from the viewpoint of a Yatuja. He is a supposed to a bad person; a drug dealer and racist, to name a few of his flaws. But we never doubt the love he has for his family as the narrative unravels. It’s the latter that unleashes his violently primal sensibilities. Every bone crushing manoeuvre, as twisted as it sounds, comes from a place of earnest affection. Bradley goes out of his way to put himself in the most violent and punishing positions among the cruellest of the cruel. But at the same time, he very much in his element. Pause for a minute and you hear “Hello Darkness My Old Friend” playing.
There is a deadpan quality to the way Vaughn plays Bradley. This film is littered with neat quips and great lines carried home by not only our lead’s menacing charm but also a slew of well-positioned supporting performances, almost in a ‘John Wick’ manner. But the casting isn’t the only comparison you can make with the Keanu Reeves-driven action flick. The action in ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ is so impressive. Restraint goes out of the window when it comes to the representation of violence and this is very much in line with the nature of the protagonist. But there’s also the craft elevating the fight scenes from mere exploitation gore fests. Zahler shoots almost all the action from a safe distance – the distance you would keep if you were stumbled upon a raging gorilla punching holes into brick walls. He gives us long takes of simple bouts of hand-to-hand combat that range from sequences resembling graceful tai-chi sparring to vicious punch-ups given exclamation points with deliberately gimmicky practical effects.
I was surprised by how much I loved ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’. It looks like a cold movie (and in some ways it is), with its bleached-out aesthetic but Vaughn makes this a thrilling ride as such an enthralling leading man in what has to be his finest performance. He does so much with a character that has a simple anti-hero arch and it’s a testament to Zahler’s storytelling that we convince ourselves that Bradley is some white knight in glistening armour. Bradley is a knight, but a knight sporting viscera stained rusted armour with the insignia of an entity decent people are meant to abhor. Like the shot of a skull-crushing beneath Bradley’s heels, we cheer for this film, when we should be burying our head in our quivering hands.