“Brawl in Cell Block 99” is the second feature from director S. Craig Zahler, the man behind “Bone Tomahawk,” the acclaimed horror western that sent critics buzzing. I, for one, didn’t enjoy the movie, so imagine my surprise when I tuned in to “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” a movie that is essentially a throwback to prison brawlers and a compelling drama. Not since “Raze” have I seen a movie so raw and vicious in its depiction of humanity. Vince Vaughn gives an enormous turn as Bradley, a man at the end of his rope who literally has to dive in to hell to save his wife and unborn child. And what’s surprising is not how far he goes, but how easy it is for a good man to sink in to hell so rapidly.
Vaughn is a cold and calculated but mighty giant of a man who seems unimposing at first but is quite a deadly individual. After being fired from his job, he decides to go back to being a drug courier after swearing off of the job long ago. Despite creating a cushy life for him and his wife Lauren, as played by Jennifer Carpenter, things immediately go awry when a drug pick up turns in to a shoot out with police. When Bradley decides to take the higher ground and turns on the mean he was involved with. Taking pity on him, he’s sentenced to a lenient but rough stretch in “The Fridge” where simply behaving and following the rules will grant him a way out. He’s unfortunately confronted by a drug kingpin’s assistant who kidnaps Lauren and threatens to mutilate his unborn child.
In order to settle his debt, he has to find an old contact who is being held in a maximum security prison called Redleaf. To help Lauren and save his child, Bradley goes through all lengths to ensure that he’s taken down in to the very bowels of the prison system, where he’s subjected to a literal hell, all for the sake of his family. What makes “Brawl in Cell Block 99” so compelling is the journey Vaughn’s character takes, and how he so adamantly has to slide farther and farther down in to darkness all for the sake of his family. Bradley is clearly a good man who could rule the world if he wants to, but when we meet him he’s had the life beaten out of him, and he just doesn’t have the enthusiasm and strength to rebuild his life, anymore. Only by driving himself in to the depths of prison can he find redemption, and it’s a vicious and violent journey that involves Bradley calculating every move he makes to ensure that he can get what he wants.
Director S. Craig Zahler submits the audience to a ton of excellent and brilliantly choreographed fight scenes where we view the sheer skill and precision Bradley possesses not just in subduing enemies, but in inflicting horrible bodily harm on them. Vaughn handles the fight scenes like a champion, using his martial arts element less as action set pieces, and more as desperate actions of a man who knows one slip up can ruin his plans and destroy his family’s life. “Brawl in Cell Block 99” is a masterful blending of genres that amounts to a dark and vicious look at how far, or how deep, someone is willing to go to save their family for the hope of a glimmer of redemption.