Genre fans will love Brawl in Cell Block 99, S. Craig Zahler’s grindhousefest and a new departure for Vince Vaughn.
Jailhouse Rockedby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Violence, more violence and then some ultra-violence. That’s the story arc in Brawl in Cell Block 99, which opens significantly with close-ups of a can being squashed and Vince Vaughan’s shaven head with a crucifix tattooed on it. Soon he is angrily disembowelling a car with his bare hands.
In a surprising departure from the kind of lighter-weight roles he’s known for, Vaughn is Bradley Thomas – not Brad as he keeps having to correct in a running joke throughout the film. He’s a baby-faced, badass man mountain, a blue-collar American hero with a Southern drawl and his own personal patriotic moral compass, who becomes a rage-filled anti-hero. Through no fault of his own, relatively speaking, finding himself on the wrong side of a Mexican drug deal, he’s blackmailed into an unspeakably violent course of action in prison to save the life of his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) and their unborn baby from appalling threats.
As Bradley’s life spirals downwards in prison, it’s sado-masochist torture porn all the way. He beats up and mutilates large numbers of prison guards until he is transferred to the maximum security prison where his target is incarcerated. In the cruel regime of that forbidding facility, Cell Block 99 (not to be confused with Cell Block H) is a prison within a prison, apparently set in the vaults of a medieval dungeon. Bradley is thrown into a foul, bare cell with only a toilet overflowing with excrement, and is fitted with an electric-shock girdle. It’s ruled over by cigarillo-chomping sadistic Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson), in a kind of pantomime villain role.
Violence is S. Craig Zahler’s speciality (Bone Tomahawk) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 does what it says on the tin. There are so many ways in which flesh is punched and battered, eyes gouged and heads squashed with enhanced sound effects of thuds and squelches and heavy footsteps, that the Foley artists must have been working overtime and many water melons harmed in the making of the film. Outside of the mêlées, the pace is slow and deliberate, dotting the Is and crossing the Ts of the plot, and the dialogue is somewhat sparse and on the nose. There’s a cast of drug barons (Marc Blucas, Dion Mucciacito), their servants (an effortlessly menacing Udo Keir) and lots of Mexican heavies, and even someone only ever referred to at ‘the Korean abortionist’, who hovers hopefully. It’s all kind of ridiculously over the top, exploitative and moving further from reality as the plot unrolls, yet the film also well enough made not to be a B movie – it’s maybe a B+. Genre fans will love it.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is released on 20 October 2017 in the UK.