This review will be as Spoiler-Free as possible.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 promises ultra-violence and it delivers, but not without a build up that may or may not be worth the wait.
Bradley (not Brad) Thomas has had a bad day. He's been laid off and comes home to discover his wife's been cheating on him for some time. They've grown apart following a miscarriage and troubles with addiction, but they decide to give it one more shot. They'll wipe the slates clean and try again.
Here's where Bradley makes a bad decision, one that he and his family will never recover from.
Bradley decides to run drugs for Gil. All seems to be going well. His wife, Lauren, is pregnant again. They've moved into a bigger and better home. And all in 18 short months. But a run for a new dealer and his men ends in a shootout. Bradley ends up in police custody. He is swiftly sentenced to seven years behind bars, but it's ok, Lauren will wait for him. If only it were that simple. That new dealer Bradley was working for lost a LOT of money in that bust and he comes to Bradley, and Lauren, for repayment. Let the violence ensue!
The synopsis ends here as I don't wish to spoil anything further. It's in the title, Bradley ends up in Cell Block 99, but it's the journey there once he's incarcerated that's the real spectacle here. And, boy, does this film sure take its sweet time getting there. It's only in the last 1/3 of the movie that we see the titular Cell Block 99 and that brawl we've been promised is but a fraction of that. Make no mistake, the movie is violent and in a way that's so matter of fact that it's almost disarming. There are no big swells in the score, no rapid cuts during fight scenes, and no Bourne-style shaky cam. Instead, it just kind of happens, and I liked that. In fact, I don't recall there being much in the way of music during any of the fight scenes. The wet thwak of fist and face being the only percussive element in most scenes. This is definitely a different style of film violence than most of us are used to and for the most part it plays to great effect, brutal and visceral, no fluffy stuff. That is, until the very end, where the violence is almost so violent as to seem otherworldly, comedic even. A Peter Griffin-esque "ha-HAA" escaped my lips more than once during the final minutes of the film.
And it's here that I'm torn.
The film seems so to be striving for such authenticity in it's story-telling only to descend into what seems like Grindhouse levels of over the top comedic violence. Maybe that's just my way of "coping" with that kind of violence on screen. Maybe all we can do is laugh when the music drops out and we're watching bones break.
Watching someone's face get scraped off is definitely funny.
Ultimately, I think Brawl in Cell Block 99 is worth your time. (Especially if you are a fan of director S. Craig Zahler's previous film Bone Tomahawk. By the way, if you haven't seen Bone Tomahawk, stop reading this immediately and watch it! That film is also ultra violent, but not funny at all.) While Brawl isn't really breaking any new ground with its story, it's still an entertaining take on the "decent guy makes bad decision now let's see how he gets out of this one" formula with a few extra beatings sprinkled in for good measure. It has a definite style even if that style is understated. Think John Carpenter's 80's era musical cues and George Romero's unflinching camera with a fresh coat of HD paint.
I give it a:
"WATCH IT IF YOU'VE HAD A BAD DAY AT WORK AND HAVE A COUPLE HOURS TO SPARE!"
- + Vince Vaughn take the lead here sporting a bald head and cross tattoo.
- + Bradley (Vaughn) pretty much deconstructs a car with his bare hands.
- + Don Johnson plays a great bad guy!
- + Most sinister use of an "abortionist" by a drug kingpin.
- + Shoe beating!
- + Taser belt!
- + the REAL Face-Off!
- + More head stomps than you can shake a stick at.
- + Beheading by foot!
- - Vince Vaughn's southern accent is pretty hit and miss.
- - Not enough Don Johnson!
- - Some laughable but not funny dialogue.
- - Nothing new story-wise here. Kids, don't run drugs!
- - Dat runtime doe!
Brawl in Cell Block 99 was directed by S. Craig Zahler and stars Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, and Don Johnson. It is available for streaming via Amazon Prime.