Review: Savagely Awesome 'Brawl In Cell Block 99' Is Vince Vaughn Unleashed

With every clenched fist, shattered jaw, and stomped cranium in S. Craig Zahler's gruesomely awesome Brawl in Cell Block 99, we venture further away from the Vince Vaughn we used to know. Oh, screw it; that Vaughn is forever gone. It'll be impossible to see him as the loudmouthed buddy or boisterous tool again. That image has been washed away in a sea of blood, and good riddance to it.

If you thought Vaughn's darker-edged turns in True Detective, Term Life, and Hacksaw Ridge were something, then strap in for the real show. He plays Bradley, and when we first meet him he's not someone we think to like. Tall, deceptively thick, and bald with what looks like a Celtic cross tattooed on his head, he looks like an extra from American History X (maybe that's where he learns his dreaded curb stomp). He's laid off from his mechanic job, and while there's tension mingling everywhere as a result, Bradley let's it go peacefully and heads home, only to catch a glimpse of his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) dabbing makeup on her neck. What's she covering up?

Cleverly, Zahler makes us think about it for a minute, just as Bradley ponders the situation from outside. Is she hurt? Or is it something more...scandalous? It isn't long before we find out the truth, and it's like someone has let the feral beast out of its cage. The fury Bradley unleashes on her car, fists turned to pulp battering the poor thing into scrap, is shocking to behold. But just as shocking is how quickly he turns it off, goes back inside, and calmly talks with her about how to proceed in their relationship. His level of control is absolute, like a samurai or a holy monk, but that also means when the beast is loose it's because Bradley wants it to be.

And that is an important distinction considering everything that happens next.  Months later, he and Lauren are expecting a baby; he's taken a job working for a drug dealer (played by Buffy's Marc Blucas!!!), and things are looking up. That is until a high-paying gig with a Mexican cartel goes south, despite Bradley's warning that it would, and he's sent upstate for seven years. But the botched deal has made people angry, and Lauren is kidnapped by one of them (Udo Kier, slimy and corny as ever) with promises of gruesome torture unless Bradley kills a specific inmate locked away in Cell Block 99 of Red Leaf maximum security prison. It doesn't even look like a prison, but instead like a dungeon on Game of Thrones, which may be why it was built without concern for "humane treatment of prisoners." The only way to pull it off is to fight, kill, do whatever it takes to be sent that inmate's wing. But to do it he'll need to survive the ruthless warden (Don Johnson), who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing his prisoners.

With only two movies to his credit, Zahler has practically cornered the market on character-driven B-movies. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a surprisingly complex art house beat 'em up, with as many laughs as savage beatings. This isn't The Raid or anything; you're not going to just get a series of endless brawls, but instead each violent encounter becomes more brutal than the last. By the time guys' heads are getting squashed into a fine paste (quite literally), your tolerance level for that much bloodshed may be reaching its peak. Trust that there's still more to come, though, and Zahler depicts it with unflinching awareness of its effect. I don't know if he's coming up with all of these kills himself, but if so then Zahler's got a twisted mind, one that hopefully will keep making gory genre flicks just like this.

You forget how imposing Vaughn can be, we're so used to him making us laugh it's hard to see him as someone so vicious. It's a little tough to watch a white, Southern, Nazi-looking behemoth beat down his share of minorities, but Bradley's an equal opportunity destroyer who renounces his racist heritage.  I don't know if those who are already skeptical will venture beyond the movie poster and figure that out, but they should.

With a funky '70s-inspired soundtrack, perfectly grubby visuals, and dialogue that's as tough as shoe leather, Zahler once again transports us into B-movie heaven, just as his grizzly debut Bone Tomahawk did. After two hours of watching Vaughn slaughterhouse his enemies, Brawl in Cell Block 99 still hadn't overstayed its welcome. So let me just request it now: Brawl in Cell Block 100. Make it happen!

Rating: 4 out of 5