Plot: Bradley (Vince Vaughn) has just lost his job and discovered his wife has been cheating on him, but after he tears apart a car with his bare hands, he decides it is time to push toward a better life. The plan is to be a drug courier for a while and earn some cash, have a child with his wife, and force life to give them what they want, rather than hope for the best. This seems to work out at first, but things take a dark turn when a drug deal goes south and Bradley is caught in the middle of a shootout between his fellow thugs and the police. Soon he is locked up for seven years, but then he learns his wife has been abducted and if he doesn’t do what he is told, she and her unborn child will both be killed in horrific fashion. Now Bradley must force a transfer to a max prison and kill an inmate, but this other prison is ruled with an iron fist. Can he somehow manage to save his wife and child, or will this be just another example of life taking away what little he had been able to build?
Entertainment Value: A slow burn, intense cinematic ride, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is an effective, well crafted picture. The premise is deceptively simple, moving from a crime thriller to a prison drama to a journey into hell, with one foot in dramatic realism and the other in a stylized vision of violence. The movie runs over two hours and is rather deliberate in pace, but it never feels slow or loses your attention, as the performances are excellent and the tension is relentless. The tone is dark and serious, but also has has a pitch black sense of humor at times, an inclusion that makes the bleak outlook seem even more hopeless. Vince Vaughn turns in one of his finest performances, embracing the abyss here and his sharp comedic sense is on point, knowing when to push a little light into that darkness. I do think he seems a little out of place when the violence erupts, but otherwise, this is a terrific effort. Don Johnson is also fun to watch as an iron fisted warden, while Jennifer Carpenter, Udo Kier, and Marc Blucas are quite good in smaller roles. As I said, this one takes a slow, deliberate path and that is certain to throw off some viewers, but Brawl in Cell Block 99 is always captivating and marks another terrific film from S. Craig Zahler.
A lone shot of a man’s bare ass is all the nakedness here, despite the trashy characters and extensive prison presence. The violence is much of a dominant force here, with frequent and graphic bursts of aggression. As I said earlier, I think Vaughn seems a little out of place in the violent scenes, as he seems slow and rather broad. This could have been a style choice however, as a lot of the violence is impactful, but doesn’t come off as gritty or realistic. This is mostly true of the hand to hand combat, which looks slow and overly practiced. I think a more raw, in the moment style of combat suits the material more, but perhaps the stylized brawls were a way to defuse the violence in a sense, but I can’t be sure. In addition to the usual CGI gun shots, we have some memorable practical effects on showcase. This includes some brutal head stomps, a face scraped off, bones broken, and some wicked gun damage. Almost all of this is contained to the finale, so while it is a slow burn, the payoff is intense. The dialogue is calculated tough guy talk for the most part, but well written and has some memorable lines. But overall, this is more about action than words. The movie has a few instances of eye popping violence, Vaughn dismantling a car with his bare hands, and some colorful characters, but sticks close the prison/crime conventions in most ways. The violence is likely to shake more squeamish viewers, but for the most part, this one isn’t that wild.
Overall Insanity: 2/10