When a tough but honest ex-criminal gets forced back into his drug-dealing ways, consequence comes knocking as his burgeoning young family is replaced by concrete walls and metal doors—only for a dangerous prison mission to be the only form of salvation for everything he holds dear, in this ultra-violent modern grindhouse genre mashup from the director of 2015’s ‘Bone Tomahawk’.
Anyone who saw his 2015 directorial debut would have noticed the fundamental b-movie influence on S. Craig Zahler’s filmmaking style, as he combined a slow-build character drama within a classic Western which turns into an unexpectedly violent horror flick. Now for his second feature as writer/director, the Miami filmmaker leaves us in no doubt about his exploitation film influences and a commitment to genre filmmaking—attempting to inject some nuance into a bygone cinematic style with this mix of character tale, prison drama and graphically violent action thriller.
Vince Vaughn stars as tough and stoic ex-gangster turned honest Joe ‘Bradley Thomas’, forced to return to his drug smuggling ways after being dealt a tough hand and trying to provide for his wife ‘Lauren’ (Jennifer Carpenter) and their unborn child. When the proverbial s**t hits the fan and a deal goes wrong, Bradley finds himself in the slammer looking at hard time—an unwilling pawn on a mission at the behest of his former associates, heading to an infamous prison run by a ruthless warden (Don Johnson) . . . but this imposing jailbird has his own ideas about how to take care of business in the big house.
Despite only having one other feature to draw conclusions from, with ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’Zahler has shown a dedication to a distinct narrative formula, as well as a gravitation towards exploitation cinema and a penchant for blending genres. Much like ‘Bone Tomahawk’, this film builds slowly and methodically, dedicating at least the first of hour of a two-hour plus runtime—a rarity for a b-movie—to fleshing out the principal character in what is essentially a low-budget crime drama, before taking a sharp turn into violent prison action/thriller territory.
As such those expecting to see an action-packed gore-fest thriller will no doubt be disappointed, as Zahler seems to be on a trajectory to try and inject some nuance into 21st century ‘b-movie’ cinema, with mixed results— but the last act does offer plenty of brutal and almost comical levels of violence to compensate.
Whether by design or thanks to a lack of resources, like his previous endeavour ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ also proves a minimalist and rather spartan affair from Zahler, free from visual stylistic trappings and barely featuring a musical score to speak of, while proving a more quiet a film than you might expect from a violent genre piece—though it does feature a soundtrack of 70s funk and soul tunes which further link it to its exploitation cinema origins.
Yet for its unconventional nature and dedication to genre blending, ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ never truly commits to or impresses with any of the cinematic styles it employs, ultimately proving something of a letdown given all the cult movie hype surrounding it. The film builds too slowly and methodically considering the general lack of character depth or a gripping storyline, ultimately proving a little to subtle for its own good, culminating in a reasonably satisfying but unspectacular payoff. Even the unexpected brutality of the violence will be seen as pretty standard for anyone familiar with cult cinema, or indeed any fan of the genres which inspired Zahler in the first place.
What really manages to hold the film together though and make this character-driven modern genre piece jump off the screen is the performance of its star, who is frankly the only real point of focus in the whole film—a subversive performance from an actor whose charisma has earned him the nickname ‘Mr Sunshine’ . . . but seen here as you’ve never seen him before.
Quick-witted and fast-talking Vince Vaughn hardly seems like an obvious casting choice for a brooding and seemingly implacable figure with a moral compass, hiding a rage which bubbles up just under the surface. Yet the statuesque actor manages to combine his physical presence with the intimidating stare he developed for his ‘Norman Bates’ in 1998’s ‘Psycho’ remake—giving us a Charles Bronson-like vigilante proposition but with more nuance, in what is one of the more memorable and certainly the most unexpected role of his 25-year career.
That central performance is ultimately what elevates this genre hybrid to reasonable levels of watchability, bringing an authenticity to a film which perches precariously on a ledge between gritty realist drama and grindhouse absurdity—a second enjoyable notch on the fledgling cinematic belt of a filmmaker with a distinct vision . . . but certainly not enough to justify the Quentin Tarantino comparisons emerging from some quarters.
The Bottom Line…
Part prison drama, part violent thriller and all grindhouse inspired, S. Craig Zahler’s commitment to injecting further nuance into exploitation cinema brings mixed results. Too subtle over too long a runtime and not quite capturing the essence or absurdity of the many genres it straddles—but proving enjoyable enough thanks to some sporadic bouts of gloriously over the top violence, and the unexpected film-carrying exploits of its star.
‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ is out on the 20th of October in the UK, and out now in the US.