Brawl in Cell Block 99: Review


I’m not entirely sure if I like grindhouse. The genre is an interesting time capsule into a particular brand of exploitation film, but at a certain point it’s hard for me to buy into the degree of sadism that is standard. However, leave it to the Craig Zahler and Vince Vaughn pairing to lend a certain degree of humanity to the over-the-top violence in Brawl in Cellblock 99.

Vaughn has completely transformed himself from a charismatic comedy actor, into a force of nature. His posture, size, and demeanor imply an unstoppable brutality underneath his cheeky southern charm, even before the punches begin to fly. Simply labeling Brawl in Cell Block 99 as a grindhouse film is slightly misleading, as it’s really divided into two halves. The first half is a drama turned crime thriller, propelled by the inevitability that Brad (sorry, Bradley) will end up in prison. The relationship between Bradley and his wife Lauren carries the slow-paced introductory portion. Although Bradley shows his simmering rage when he assaults his wife’s car with his bare hands, there is a compassion and warmth to him that makes his actions feel believable. He’s not just a stoic badass, but a flesh-and-blood person who is trying to help his family, however misguided his methods may be.

The hour of setup before the eventual flurry of violence is essential. Without it, we would only have an entertaining exercise in horrific action spectacle. But, thanks to the setup, Bradley’s fury is given a purpose, the protection of his family. After a menacing figure’s visit to his prison, Bradley descends into an increasingly medieval penal system. As his surroundings grow more cartoonishly oppressive, the fight sequences also increase in intensity. Vaughn’s physicality, combined with tightly composed brawls make for another entry in the “show the action” style film making. Whenever the violence ensues, we are treated to long-shots with minimal music, highlighting the carnage excellently. The grotesque body-horror that the genre is known for, combined with tightly framed, well-choreographed fights, makes for bouts where every punch is felt in between the cracking of broken bones. The skull-crushing that ensues is undeniably stomach-turning, but Vaughn’s latest turn as a serious actor makes the juxtaposition between drama and pulp work.

Rating: 4 Koalas out of 5    😦

Image credit: Film Bar

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