Featuring some of the most extreme hand-to-hand combat since 2011’s “The Raid: Redemption,” “Brawl in Cell Block 99” leaves a lasting impression.
Directed by S. Craig Zahler, “Brawl in Cell Block 99” stars Vince Vaughn as an ex-boxer named Bradley Thomas. Thomas — a devoted family man despite his ferocious appearance — turns to crime to provide for his family when there’s no other option. After a botched drug deal lands Thomas in prison, he must fight and kill his way through a harsh prison system to ensure the safety of his wife and unborn child.
Despite the B-movie title, “Brawl” features more depth and character development than most contemporary action films, while also providing enough uncompromising violence to satisfy hardcore action fans.
Vaughn gives a sharp performance as Thomas. Previously known for his comedic roles, Vaughn’s performance vastly exceeds expectations, demonstrating his range as an actor. Although Zahler peppers the film’s script with darkly humorous dialogue, Vaughn demands to be taken seriously by viewers.
“Brawl” has a surprisingly methodical first half, taking time to develop Thomas as a protagonist who is worth caring about to the audience. While threatening in his towering appearance, Thomas has a strong moral compass which renders him relatable and likable — to an extent.
The film’s second half adopts a relentless pace which contrasts the thoughtful and deliberate nature of the film’s introduction. Near the conclusion of the film, “Brawl” becomes ridiculously dramatic, not taking itself too seriously.
The film frequently contains drawn-out scenes, reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s films, which amplify the sardonic dialogue and lend several scenes to palpable suspense, reflecting Thomas’s pent-up rage.
“Brawl” is most-assuredly a niche film, potentially polarizing because of the extreme brutality on display.
Zahler doesn’t shy away from showing the grisliness of prison life. Viewers can smell the grime-covered cells and feel every skull-crushing punch.
While the bone-crunching violence proves occasionally hard to watch, viewers feel emotionally attached to Thomas, rooting for him despite the vile acts he’s forced to commit by a crime lord who holds his wife hostage.
Zahler eschews the quick editing and shaky camera techniques of most modern action films, utilizing wide-angle shot compositions that allow viewers to have a clear understanding of what is happening.
“Brawl in Cell Block 99,” though not for everyone, is worth the price of admission for Vince Vaughn’s committed performance alone.