What’s more macho than Kurt Russell in his finest moustache, playing a grizzled Sheriff, fighting cannibal cave dwellers in the old west? Manly man director S. Craig Zahler follows up his incredible debut feature Bone Tomahawk with something completely different - but no less idiosyncratic or machismo-drenched.
Vince Vaughn practically oozes testosterone as tattooed thug Bradley Thomas - a man who is as much victim to circumstance as he is his own unbending morals. Forced to turn to crime after losing his job and unborn baby, Bradley takes to drug dealing in a last-ditch effort to save his marriage. Unfortunately, Brad’s bad luck – and moral code – leave him jailed, in debt to gangsters and, crucially, very angry about it.
His wife and latest unborn child kidnapped, Bradley is blackmailed into murdering a man on the infamously horrible Cell Block 99. The only problem is, Bradley is on a completely different wing in a completely different prison. With his wife and kid’s lives at stake, Bradley must punch his way through the prison system, like Charlie Bronson with a motivation, or an incarcerated Grand Theft Auto protagonist. ‘Brawl’ is putting it mildly, though.
Limbs break at every angle, bones crack, heads smash and – in the most disturbing cinematic head stomp since American History X - faces scrape. Zahler never once flinches from his violence, doing for the prison fight genre what Bone Tomahawk did for cannibals. Crucially, he rarely glorifies it either, making his fight sequences disturbing and upsetting. As with his previous feature, Zahler moves at his own pace, allowing the story to unfold naturally and with terrifying inevitability. To this, the director brings a sensibility usually reserved for such torture flicks as Hostel and A Serbian Film - not so much a genre twist this time around as taking the prison film as far as it will go. But even as the prison guards get more sadistic and his fellow inmates turn the knife, Bradley is up to the challenge. He may not enjoy inflicting violence for violence’s sake, but Bradley is very good at it… and so, surprisingly, is Vaughn, in the career comeback he’s been threatening since True Detective Series Two.
If not the violence, some will baulk at the retrograde Damsel in Distress subplot for Jennifer Carpenter (good, but a little wasted), and the unashamed like-it-or-lump-it conservatism of the story and its themes. Brawl in Cell Block 99 makes few concessions to its audience, expecting them to stick with the relatively slow pace and stretches of time between fights. Go in expecting just another prison punching movie and one will be sorely disappointed. This is no triumphant jailhouse beat ‘em up, nor the next Shawshank Redemption – quite the opposite, in fact. As it drags its reluctant antihero down to the depths of a Salo-esque torture prison, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is, quite exquisitely, the ultimate feel-bad prison movie.
Special Features: Journey to the Brawl making-of
BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: S. CRAIG ZAHLER / STARRING: VINCE VAUGHN, JENNIFER CARPENTER, MARC BLUCAS, ROB MORGAN, DON JOHNSON, UDO KIER / RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 26TH