Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 was previously reviewed at TIFF 2017.

PLOT: A former boxer (Vince Vaughn) turned drug runner, is forced to infiltrate a maximum security prison.

REVIEW: Director S. Craig Zahler is quickly establishing himself as the most exciting pulp-infused voice to come along since Quentin Tarantino. His 2015 western, BONE TOMAHAWK, came out of nowhere, bypassing traditional fests like TIFF to premiere at Fantastic Fest, dropping on VOD soon after, where it became such a breakout critical hit that it walked away with some Independent Spirit Award nominations. His follow-up, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, is a lean and mean grindhouse tale that offers star Vince Vaughn a career redefining role, casting him in a part far removed from anything he’s ever done before.

His character, Bradley (not Brad, as he constantly corrects people), is a hulking brute of a guy, but not without reason. When he learns his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) has been cheating on him, he wrecks her car with his fists (in a knockout scene) but after calming down, talks things through. He’s good at violence but he’s not prone to it, explaining to another character that he’d rather be “knitting little pink booties than hitting someone who doesn’t deserve it.”

Lucky for us then that after a slow-burn first act, which follows his ill-advised career in the drug trade, Bradley finds lots of deserving opponents. After two colleagues open fire on cops in a drug raid, the heroic Bradley helps the police, only to score a seven year sentence for not ratting. Eventually, his pregnant wife gets kidnapped by the drug lord’s malevolent associate (Udo Kier – having fun and cast to perfection) who threatens to sic an sadist abortionist on her, unless Bradley, who’s housed in a not-so-bad medium security prison, get himself sent to a super-max to eliminate someone imprisoned there.

From this point on, the movie becomes a blood-soaked trip through hell, with Vaughn fighting his way through subterranean prison wings, run by a cool-as-shit warden (Don Johnson), who always seems a step ahead. His cells seem plucked from the mind of a vintage horror auteur, with Bradley forced into a one covered in broken glass, with a stun belt sending intermittent shocks through his body. It’s here that the movie goes into full action mode, with incredible fight scenes, all photographed in long shots to show Vaughn is doing his own fighting. Bloody scraps, they’re the opposite of what you’d see in an Asian martial arts flick, as Vaughn’s not a martial artist, but rather a brutish scrapper. Many are already comparing the last act to THE STORY OF RICKY, but it’s less outlandish than that, although possibly just as gory.

Through it all, Vaughn is a magnetic leading man. His quick-wit occasionally bursts through, but for the most part Bradley is a sincere man of few words, and a classic new Hollywood tough guy. Vaughn’s clearly gotten into shape, but lacks the typical Hollywood physique, making him seem all the more realistic in the part, with his imposing 6’5 height used for the first time since DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE to make him look scary.

Like in BONE TOMAHAWK, the cast is full of amazing character actors, including “The Deuce’s” Mustafa Shakir and Fred Melamed as guards, while Don Johnson has another modern-classic part as the Lee Marvin-ish warden, with him clearly relishing the change-of-pace.

Due out in theaters and on VOD within a month, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is a can’t miss slice of genre entertainment, but if it happens to play theatrically near you, do yourself a favor and check it out that way. This is a real midnight movie that needs to be seen with a captive audience, and deserves its time in the sun. It is, without a doubt, the best action movie of the year, and further proof that Zahler is a real-deal auteur.


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.