'Brawl in Cell Block 99' Film Review

Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is a simple man. Go to work, provide for your wife, leave your past demons behind you. For the most part, he does a pretty great job at that. He’s got a decent job, he’s got a supportive wife, and he’s checked his alcoholism and violent tendencies at the door a long time ago. 

Then he loses his job. 

This doesn’t phase Bradley too much. He understands business is business and walks away with his head held high. When he returns home to find his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), in the car and ready to leave him for another man, he cracks. This is personal, and in response Bradley rips apart Lauren’s car piece by piece with his bare hands. He is a giant, hulking beast, but only when he allows himself to be. Having released all of his anger, he goes inside to have a very calm conversation with his wife. They decide that they want to start over and rebuild their life together. Bradley can be a very violent man, but he knows when to fight and when he needs to relax. Brawl in Cell Block 99, the movie revolving around him, follows the cues of its star. It’s reluctant to be violent and knows when to hold its punches. But whenever it finally does decide to throw down, it’s a real knockout. 

After deciding to restart his life, things actually begin pretty well for Bradley. He and Lauren are expecting a baby, with a better relationship than ever. His work as a drug runner for his friend, Gil (Marc Blucas), has given him a means to provide above and beyond for his growing family. It all comes crashing down again when Gil goes into business with a new cartel head, whose men botch a delivery and open fire on the pursuing cops. 

It is here that Bradley finally unleashes his violence onto others, turning on the cartel to save the cops. This decision results in his arrest and a stretch of prison time. Things go from bad to worse when the head of the cartel, looking to seek revenge, has Lauren kidnapped. For her release, Bradley has to cooperate. There’s an inmate the cartel wants dead who’s held in Redleaf Maximum Security Prison. The only problem is that Bradley is currently in the minimum security prison. To reach his target, he’s going to have to do what he does best: fight.

For a movie titled Brawl in Cell Block 99, there’s very little actual brawling. Director S. Craig Zahler has his sights set on something much deeper and personal. The violence in the film comes out in very sparse and quick bursts. Bradley is so skilled and disinterested in all of the violence, there’s a matter-of-factness to many of the fight sequences. This is very much a character study of a man trying to do right, who is wronged at every possible opportunity. 

These deep, powerful themes are supplemented with some great grindhouse, genre fare. The threat against Bradley isn’t just his wife’s life. It’s that an abortionist will surgically remove the limbs of his unborn daughter. It runs the danger of feeling out of place, but it’s such a specific danger, handled so deftly that it actually feels more dangerous than simple life-or-death stakes. The violence also gets pulpier the further Bradley goes through the prison system, but by the time the film gets there, it feels earned and in no way exploitive. 

All of these elements are ingredients to a great film, but it would all fall apart if not anchored by the dazzling performance of Vince Vaughn. Making a home as the wise-ass comedy lead for many years, Vaughn has made the turn toward serious fare as of late. A leading role in the disastrous second season of True Detective and a supporting role in the Oscar-nominated Hacksaw Ridge haven’t succeeded in showcasing his talents. With Brawl, Vaughn has found the best role of his career and turned in one of the year’s greatest performances. He fully inhabits this role and throws himself into the character so completely. Like Bradley, Vaughn knows when to pull his punches and when to throw them. He plays everything calm, knowing his imposing body can do most of the talking. When he does let loose, it’s an emotional wallop to the gut.

While there is a lot to love, Brawl is not a perfect film. It does drag in certain parts. While overall the conclusion works wonderfully, the final image it decides to end on doesn’t feel like a good representation of the powerful drama at work throughout the rest of the film.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a simple film, but it knows how to pack a punch. There’s a scene when Bradley first gets to prison and is given a strip search. One of the guards inspects his manhood and remarks, “He’s an A-.” That sounds about right.