‘Brawl In Cell Block 99’ – Film Review

Vince Vaughn is a savage with a strict moral code in the best role of his career

If you saw Bone Tomahawk, S Craig Zahler’s first movie, then you may just about be prepared for the level of brutality in his second. That film memorably included a scene in which a naked man is flipped upside down and split with an axe, by a deformed cannibal, right down the middle. ‘Brawl In Cell Block 99’ has moments just as shocking, but like its predecessor, it’s much more than just violence.

In probably the best role of his career, Vince Vaughn plays Bradley Thomas, a man who loses his job and decides his only financial option is to become a drug runner. He does this successfully, providing for his pregnant wife, but a bungled job with another gang lands him in jail. This is only the start of his problems. As repayment for the failed deal, a drug kingpin wants Bradley to kill another prisoner, or he’ll kill his unborn baby. Unfortunately, this prisoner is in a maximum security prison and Bradley is not. The only way to get sent there is for Bradley to do some very bad things.

The burn is slow – we won’t get to Cell Block 99 for over an hour – but Bradley is fascinating to watch. He doesn’t say a lot but he’s always planning, and you can see it in Vaughn’s face. He watches quietly then carries out his schemes explosively, snapping a guard’s arm or stamping an inmate’s head to mush. Zahler’s violence is graphic and horrible, but it’s also stylish and imaginative. It’s not just brutality for brutality’s sake. The whole film is, in its own hellish way, oddly beautiful.

Bradley isn’t a character you’d call likeable, but he’s driven by a strict moral code. If his wife and child are OK, then the rest of the world can go burn. As monstrous as he is, this drive puts you on his side. As he descends into hell, laying waste to everyone in his way, you want Bradley to succeed – you just wouldn’t want to be alone in a room with him.