After seeing film stills of Vince Vaughn with a freshly shaven head, adorned in prison garb for his new movie Brawl In Cell Block 99, it was easy to make the assumption that he’d be playing some kind of white supremacist. In one of the movie’s first scenes, as he steps out of his tow-truck, firing off his dialogue in a southern-tinged accent, with a giant cross wrapped in barbed wire on the back of his head, it was easy to keep that assumption.
It isn’t until the movie gets going that we come to know Vaughn’s character, Bradley Thomas, as a well-meaning everyman, laid off from his job and willing to do anything in order to provide for his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), and the family they so desperately want to start. To make ends meet, he takes a job as a drug runner, and is soon sent on a mission to pick up a package with a pair of cartel-backed enforcers to help shore up a new alliance.
Things go wrong, of course, but once the cops show up, Bradley decides to intervene in a rather unexpected way. Regardless, he ends up behind bars, and opts out of any sort of plea deal being offered to him, deciding instead to take the sentence that’s handed down.
It’s here when things stat to get complicated. Rather than simply being locked away in a cold, gray cell, he’s visited by ‘The Placed Man’ (Udo Kier), an exceptionally terrifying role for an actor who’s built his career on terrifying roles. He tells him that his wife has been kidnapped, and has to get transferred to the roughest block of a maximum security prison and do away with a rival criminal if he wants to save the life of his wife — and their unborn child.
What had seemed like (at times) an unnecessarily long setup gives way to a cascading series of increasingly violent scenes, from Bradley roughing up enough guards to get transferred to a maximum security prison, ran by the gleefully ruthless Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson). Once he’s there, he has to work his way up to cell block 99, where the worst of the worst are held.
There’s a certain amount of cathartic fun in watching Vaughn’s character get increasingly bruised and beaten as he lays waste to everyone who crosses him, and writer/director S. Craig Zahler (who helmed the equally violent Bone Tomahawk, which premiered at Fantastic Fest in 2015) takes great pains to minimize his edits, which they revealed in the Q&A after the film led to some real-life injuries for the actors in the process.
Taken on a whole, the film plays out like a kind of escape room where there’s no escape, just increasing levels of difficulty that Bradley must fight through. The ease he’s willing to beat down his opponents, who come one after the other like a video game, would suggest he’s a kind of anti-hero. However, the fact that he’s doing it all to save the life of his family affords him the moral high ground — allowing the audience to take in the blood-splattered, bone-crunching glory without having to get mired down with the question of whether or not some of his unfortunate victims really ‘deserved’ their fate.
While some will end up watching the back-half through their hands, Brawl In Cell Block 99 is an unapologetically fun, hyper-violent pulp experience that lets you root for the main character despite any inference of morally gray areas.