Vince Vaughn will always be thought of as a dry-witted comedian, but writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s ultra-violent Brawl In Cell Block 99 looks to diversify opinions. Instead of crashing weddings, Vaughn is pulverizing skulls. Instead of running his mouth about how “money” people are, he’s quiet, frosty and speaking through dangerous actions. Even with Hacksaw Ridge and True Detective under his belt, this is a new, beastly look for the longtime funnyman, and what a break in character it is. Thoughts about the movie aside, this might be my favorite representation of Vaughn’s talents and not a single joke is needed. Welcome to the game, Vince “I Snap Limbs” Vaughn.
In Zahler’s story, Vaughn stars as Bradley Thomas (not “Brad,” just “Bradley”). We meet him as an honest mechanic, but within minutes, Bradley finds himself laid off on the same day his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) admits to sneaking intimacy behind his back. The events lead Bradley back to running drugs for kingpin Gil (Marc Blucas), the easiest way to support a now-pregnant Lauren some eighteen months later. It’s a dirty job that gives him everything he wants, but that’s until a deal-gone-bad lands Bradley in jail for seven years. Even worse? Lauren is kidnapped by another dealer who lost some $3 million on the busted pickup, and her safety is only guaranteed if Bradley agrees to assassinate an inmate at Redleaf maximum-security prison. Hard time made even harder.
To me, Brawl In Cell Block 99 is a monster movie; Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas as Zahler’s Frankenstein creation. A loving, dedicated family man by day, but once his rage kicks in, Bradley’s boxing skills become a devastating touch-of-death. He snaps like Bronson (Tom Hardy’s cinematic version), the actor’s deathly-serious glare piercing directly though whoever faces the unfortunate task of standing in his way.
This is a new Vaughn – beefed up and striking corrections officers like a mad gorilla without containment. His punches landing with a sickening thud, remorse or resentment never even a passing thought. There’s so much pain, frustration, anger, and – yes – well intentions stuffed behind Bradley’s unflinching intensity, but desperation does horrible things to people. Vaughn finds his peace in punishment, and what a deafening performance for the books this is.
If you’ve seen Bone Tomahawk, then you already know what Zahler is capable of gore-wise (yes, the body split) – and Brawl In Cell Block 99 is no different. Bradley is a fist-fighting assassin who snaps bones fragments clear through flesh. Reangles limbs from straight to 90-degrees given just one well-placed stomp or twist. Heads are crushed, removed, and scraped across floors until all that remains are caved-in prosthetics leaking goopy redness. Weaker stomaches, be prepared to look away. Nothing is as memorable as Bone Tomahawk‘s – well – tomahawk, but Zahler still exploits violence with grindhouse enthusiasm unmatched. When the body-pounding begins, Vaughn leads a destructive assault of jailhouse aggression too cool to not be an 80s brawler. Prepare to feel the pain.
Note how I mention *when* action picks up, because at an overlong 132 minutes, Zahler feels like he’s making two separate movies. One the back-end brutalizer, the other a beginning hour-or-so that sets up his incarceration. Bradley spirals out of control – dismantling a car with his bare hands – then is forced to piece back together some semblance of a life, but for a movie called Brawl In Cell Block 99, there’s a noticeable lack of brawling for far too long.
Vaughn always remains an engaging fixation point, but other aspects like an odd “9/11” remark and certain portrayals of minorities make us yearn for the title’s teased furiousness (to distract from some base-value characterization). This a movie best serviced by Udo Kier’s funeral-parlor-eqsue mannerisms, Don Johnson’s cigar-chewing, take-no-gruff warden, and Vaughn’s descent deeper and deeper into unforgivable salvation (punching further into the beast’s belly in exchange for his wife’s release). It’s just a little bit of a chore before all that violent goodness begins.
Despite my disagreements with pace and running time, Brawl On Cell Block 99 gets by on anti-hero charms and a stone-cold nasty performance by Vince Vaughn. Credit S. Craig Zahler for going an unconventional casting route that pays off in a big, more-intimidating-than-expected way. Same with smaller details like forgoing musical accompaniment during fight sequences so we can hear every nauseating “thwap,” cry and crack that comes along with transforming men into messy pulp. It might sound vile and unnecessary, but for redemption so grim, you might as well push all-in. Zahler does just that, and his deuces are wild alright – wild enough to make even the most outspoken genre fan recoil in disgust now and again.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 takes a bit to get started, but when it does, it's a punishing spiral into the depths of exploitation madness too gory to believe.