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BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017)
Directed by S. Craig Zahler
Written by S. Craig Zahler
Starring Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas, Tom Guiry, Rob Morgan, Dan Amboyer, Geno Segers, Fred Melamed, Clark Johnson, Pooja Kumar, Mustafa Shakir, Philip Ettinger, Jay Hieron, Jay Hieron, Devon Windsor, Larry Mitchell, Willie C. Carpenter, Victor Almanzar, Gabriel Sloyer, Michael Medeiros, Jonathan Lee, Calvin Dutton, Dion Mucciacito, Brandon Alan Smith, Keren Dukes, Tuffy Questell, Adrian Matilla, Franco Gonzalez, Jack Ricardo Miller
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BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is one of those two-fisted, powerhouse films that don’t come around often. It’s full of unconventional twists and turns and barrels down its inevitable path while still maintaining nerve-shredding tension and spotlight performances from it’s stars. It’s one of those man’s man movies that says a lot while its protagonist says so little. Director S. Craig Zahler delivered last year’s soul scorching western genre-bender BONE TOMAHAWK and brings the goods again with BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99.
Vince Vaughn plays Bradley Thomas, a hardworking, yet beleaguered Southern gentleman who is fired from his job in the opening moments and is forced to run drugs in order to provide for his wife (DEXTER’s Jennifer Carpenter) and their unborn daughter. But when a drop goes south, Bradley finds himself in prison. And while one might think that is as bad as it gets, a series of events puts Bradley on a mission to go to a maximum security facility and murder a man in cell block 99. With the life of his family on the line, Bradley will stop at nothing to get to cell block 99 and get to brawlin’!
I’ve never been the biggest Vince Vaughn. Sure I chuckle at his films, but any attempt at a serious role from the actor has left me cold. After seeing BRAWL ON CELL BLOCK 99, now I have to rethink my preconceptions about the guy because Vaughn carries this film confidently and with offers up a performance that makes you forget about all of his comedy work. With a little bit of Southern drawl and a cold stare, Vaughn plays a monster trapped in a man’s body. The problem is that this monster is trying to do right, but life keeps poking it and poking it until he explodes. Vaughn shies away from his usual Vaughn-isms; the cocky attitude, the twitchy demeanor, and the use of that tight-voice staccato thing he does when he acts frustrated. Here, Vaughn is stoic. A man of little words and calculated movements—until he is forced to act and then, holy shit! Using his height and some bulked up muscle, Vaughn kicks so much ass in this film, you’re going to think someone else is wearing a skin mask of him during the fight scenes. I’ll get to the directing in a minute, but the close shots of Vaughn during the various brawls that he gets into makes Vaughn look like a person no one wants to cross. Vaughn is a force of nature in this film, focused on one goal and determined to reach it or die trying. He is simply amazing here and carries the entire film from start to gory finish.
I’ve read criticism of S. Craig Zahler’s BONE TOMAHAWK for its sort of meandering story. I guess I can understand it if you’re the type who needs action in every scene for a film to have an impact. But in BONE TOMAHAWK, I didn’t mind the meandering because I was soaking in all of the awesome character work from Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson, and especially Richard Jenkins. I could have followed those characters a few more hours into the desert had Zahler filmed it. As with BONE TOMAHAWK, Zahler provides a character in Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas that I again, enjoyed spending so much time getting to know. From minute one to minute 120, Vaughn is on screen and embodying this fascinating character and while I admit, the first 45 minutes is a little slow, it is filled with character and intensity that you’re not going to find anywhere else. Once in the prison system, Zahler takes the viewer on a descent with Bradley that gets bleaker and bleaker as the film goes on. The purity of Bradley’s mission and the flawed but admirable soul Vaughn brings out again made me wish this film was longer than it already is. I’m sure there will be those who will lob the same criticism of being a bit long in the tooth on BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, but I loved every second of it.
Filled with brutal, ground level fight scenes, gore that will make you leap from your seat, and a performance from Vaughn that shatters and shits on any performance he’s done prior, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is hardcore action suspense at it’s finest. With great supporting performances from Jennifer Carpenter, the ever-amazing Udo Kier, and another iconic performance by Don Johnson as a truly ruthless warden—there’s a lot in this film to fall in love with. While it isn’t horror, per se, as with BONE TOMAHAWK, Zahler curb-stomps genre convention and makes an epic film about determination and devotion that will crush your soul as it crushes skulls on screen.
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