After a drug deal with Mexican gangster Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito) and his trigger-happy goons turns messily violent, stoic, principled drug runner Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is forced to kill one of his loose cannon partners to save the lives of some policemen. Arrested for his trouble, Bradley (not Brad, never Brad) refuses to turn informer and accepts the seven years he’ll spend as a guest of the state as an occupational hazard.

All Bradley wants is to keep his head down (not easy when you’re a 6’5” shaven-headed hulk), do his time in peace and return to his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) if she’ll still have him but fate, and the Mexican gangster he crossed, have different ideas.

Visited in prison by Eleazar’s icily saurian, Eurotrash henchman (the ever-wonderful Udo Kier, billed here as the Placid Man) who informs Bradley that his actions have cost the Mexicans millions of dollars. All he has to do to square his debt to them is kill a particular high-value prisoner they want dead.

Unfortunately the prisoner resides not in the Fridge, Bradley’s medium-security prison, but in the notorious Cell Block 99 of the state’s maximum-security prison Redleaf, a practically medieval hellhole ruled by the vicious Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson). And if Bradley doesn’t find a way to get the job done, his pregnant wife and unborn child will suffer a fate worse than death…

A fate worse than death.

How many times have you seen that phrase written, heard it used, bandied around in one shitty review, pulp novel, schlocky action movie or cheap grindhouse flick after another. And how often has it lived up to your expectations? How often has the fate awaiting our unlucky protagonists truly been a fate worse than death?

Sure, every so often a movie will up the stakes a little, Rutger Hauer will use Jennifer Jason Leigh to pull a lorry trailer or A Serbian Film, well, A Serbian Film will just wallow in Man’s bestial nature. But how often does a character threaten to do something so foul, so perverse, so flatly evil that it chills you to the bone?

In what has already become one of Brawl In Cell Block 99’s most celebrated and analysed scenes, near the beginning of the film, after being laid off from his job as a mechanic, Vaughn’s Bradley returns home to discover his wife, Lauren, has been cheating on him. Barely keeping his anger in check, Bradley expends his rage on her car, effectively demolishing it, before going inside and calmly, rationally, discussing the future of their relationship with his wife, both of them taking ownership of their problems and resolving to try harder, to start over. It’s arguably the film’s most revealing scene and one of it’s most affecting, laying bare Bradley’s character; the rage boiling inside him, his capacity for violence, his supreme sense of self-control, his precision, his capacity for love, his sense of sacrifice, his willingness to do what it takes. But it’s another scene on which the film pivots.

Midway through Brawl In Cell Block 99, writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to his horror/Western hybrid Bone Tomahawk, smooth, urbane Udo Kier pays Vince Vaughn’s taciturn, freshly incarcerated hero a visit and clinically spells out exactly the fate awaiting Lauren and the baby she carries if he doesn’t do as he’s told. And it’s chilling in its matter-of-factness, a fate, for any parent, worse than death. A threat, no, a promise, that goes some way to justifying the next hour or so of bloody, bruising, bone-crunching ultra-violence.

Essentially a good man on a series of bad days, Vaughn’s measured, charismatic performance as Bradley is a revelation, swapping the twitchy, jittery motor-mouths that have been his stock in trade for two decades in favour of a laconic coolness, a stillness, delivering a turn that already has critics drooling, falling over themselves to anoint him born again. In fact, I’m sure the terms Vaughn Again and Vaughnaissance have already been coined and patented. Towering like a sequoia over the rest of the cast with a body that seems hewn from granite, Vaughn acquits himself admirably in the film’s grisly, grueling fight scenes, soaking up punishment with the same stoicism as he deals it out, but it’s in the film’s quieter moments where he shines, his scenes with Carpenter sweet, tender. Ranged against him meanwhile Udo Kier’s villainous fixer feels more like a put-upon bureaucrat while Don Johnson chews the scenery with relish as the kind of prison warden Amnesty International would definitely not approve off.

As outrageously violent as Brawl In Cell Block 99 is, and this is not a film to watch if you are in any way squeamish about the havoc blunt force trauma can wreak on a face, a head, an arm or a leg, Zahler brings a sense of realism, of pain, of consequences, to his violent interludes, his film’s measured pacing allowing the characters to grow and develop, to become real before Zahler throws them onto his Grand Guignol stage, the film’s lengthy running time rendering the fight scenes an exercise in delicious anticipation and deferred cathartic pleasure. Like his previous film Bone Tomahawk, it’s also surprisingly funny, the verbal interplay a joy, Vaughn bagging better one-liners than he ever got as a Wedding Crasher – when asked how he is after being made redundant his laconic answer is: “South of ok, North of cancer,” while another prisoner laments the facilities offered by the prison they are en-route to and wishes he was on his way to a state-of-the-art Austrian facility, Bradley comments: “You should aim higher with your wishes!”

Dark, funny and gobsmackingly violent, Brawl In Cell Block 99 is brutal, visceral fun.

Movie Review: Brawl In Cell Block 99
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