16th Oct2017

LFF 2017: ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Review by Matthew Turner

Stars: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Marc Blucas, Tom Guiry, Udo Kier, Rob Morgan, Geno Segers, Fred Melamed | Written and Directed by S. Craig Zahler


The second feature from Bone Tomahawk writer/director S. Craig Zahler, stylishly executed, ultra-violent prison flick Brawl in Cell Block 99 features a revelatory performance from Vince Vaughn that will make you see the actor in a whole new light.

Vaughn plays Bradley Thomas, a scary-looking recovering alcoholic with a shaved head and a big old crucifix tattooed onto the back of it. When Bradley winds up in prison after a spot of drug-running goes south, he’s visited by a sleazy henchman (Udo Kier) and given an ultimatum: he has to get himself transferred to a nearby maximum security prison and murder an inmate there or horrible things will happen to his kidnapped wife (Jennifer Carpenter) and unborn child.

Bone Tomahawk was notable for both its deliberate pacing and its shocking, bone-crunching, avert-your-eyes violence when the action scenes finally arrived. Zahler employs a similar trick with the pacing here, so that, a minor skirmish aside, it’s close to an hour before we really get a sense of what Bradley is capable of. When it comes, it’s a devastatingly brutal moment that deserves to be seen with a paying audience, because that collective intake of breath is part and parcel of the experience.

Similarly, the violence is decidedly not for the squeamish. Suffice it to say that the gore effects are exceptional, marrying genuinely horrifying visuals with suitably bone-crunching sound effects.

The script deploys a fair amount of dramatic licence (Bradley receives perhaps the screen’s fastest prison transfer), but it’s hard to complain when the result is this good. To that end, Zahler structures Brawl in Cell Block 99 like a slowly closing trap, gradually cranking up tension as Bradley has no choice but to continue on his path.

In addition, Zahler maintains tight control of the tone, ensuring that it’s played deadly straight throughout, with the only laughs coming from Vaughn’s bone-dry line delivery (asked how he’s doing at one point he responds, “south of okay, north of cancer”).

Vaughn is simply magnificent in the lead role – there’s not a trace of the lazy, motor-mouthed screen persona he’s developed over the past two decades. Instead he delivers an incredibly sustained performance, effecting a calm stillness that is mesmerising to watch. This fascinating element to his character is revealed early on, in a telling scene where he calmly sits down with his wife to discuss their marital problems just moments after we’ve seen him rip apart her car with his bare hands.

More to the point, with Vaughn playing the part the way he does, the emotional moments of the story hit surprisingly hard because they’re so beautifully under-stated. Vaughn gives us enough early on that we understand he has a strong moral code, so we’re fully invested in his terrifying journey.

There isn’t much in the way of a supporting cast, because this is Vaughn’s film through and through, but Don Johnson is great value as moustache-twirling Warden Tuggs, the monstrous warden of the maximum security hell-hole Bradley gets transferred to, while Udo Kier is used to particularly skin-crawling effect as the henchman to a Mexican crime boss.

In addition, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is given extra atmosphere by Benji Bakshi’s washed-out cinematography (which hammers home the increasing bleakness of Bradley’s situation) and a Blaxploitation-esque score of ’70s-style soul, co-composed by Zahler and Jeff Herriott and performed by vintage artists like The O’Jays and Butch Tavares.

Relentlessly gripping and shockingly brutal, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is an intense experience that confirms writer-director Zahler as a major talent to watch.

***** 5/5


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