Brawl in Cell Block 99, written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, tells the story of Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn), an ex-boxer desperately trying to live a crime-free life. When he discovers that his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) is cheating on him on the same day he’s laid off from his recovery driver job, Thomas initially reacts in a primal fashion but then soon vows to give her a better life by returning to a life of crime.
Fast-forward to 18 months later and Thomas is now a highly organised and proficient drug runner with Lauren due to give birth to their daughter. When his boss insists he takes the lead in a drugs drop with his new collaboration with a Mexican cartel, things go wrong and Thomas finds himself under arrest. Facing a lengthy prison sentence in a medium security prison, Thomas decides to keep a low profile and bide his time to get back to his family.
Soon after he has settled into his incarceration he is visited by a man representing the cartel. Unhappy about the Cartel’s sizeable financial loss, he informs him that Lauren has been taken hostage and if he doesn’t do as he’s told, that his unborn child will be brutalised and his family wiped out. To comply with their wishes he needs to get himself transferred to the maximum security Redleaf Correctional Facility, run by a sadistic warden (Don Johnson) where he will have to kill an inmate to clear the debt. Forced into this impossible situation, Thomas must revert back to the ways of his former violent self to ensure that he is transferred.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 somehow feels like it shouldn’t really work, but it does. It’s definitely an homage to the Grind House genre that had a brief resurgence with the Tarantino/Rodriguez double-feature of Death Proof and Planet Terror a decade ago, but is told in a more straightforward fashion. Vaughn gives arguably his best performance and Don Johnson is suitably hammy yet somehow endearing in his embrace of his role.
However, there are some scenes that are perhaps too on the nose, employing retro effects, scenes that perhaps would’ve been better served utilising a modern approach in filmmaking as this isn’t overtly bein sold as a Grind House homage. At certain points the film is trying too hard to look like a low budget ‘70s film when this particular approach seems to act as an unnecessary stylistic distraction from the otherwise engaging story it’s trying to tell.
The film takes time to build up the story prior to its inevitable bloody conclusion and is not afraid to allow the viewer to develop a deeper connection with its central character than the more shallow films it’s at times trying to ape, certainly in terms of style.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a challenging, visceral and often interesting film, that whilst not a classic by any means, provides a refreshing change and is bolstered by a strong central performance from Vince Vaughn.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 7/10
Brawl In Cell Block 99 is available via digital download on various platforms in the UK, including Amazon and Sky Store.