Brace yourself for the bone-crunching mayhem of Brawl in Cell Block 99: EW review
Let’s make one thing crystal clear upfront. Vince Vaughn’s luridly titled and exceedingly violent Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not a film for everyone. In fact, it’s not a movie for most. It’s shockingly graphic, relentlessly bleak, and at two-and-a-quarter hours, it can feel like an endless wallow in some sick circle of hell that Dante wasn’t depraved enough to imagine. But if your cinematic tastes run in that less-than-reputable direction (not judging, but you know who you are), it’s an over-the-top sort of sicko exploitation masterpiece. I loved it. But I also felt like I needed a Silkwood shower when I left the theater.
Okay, so you’ve now been duly warned. If you’re still reading then here’s a taste of what you can look forward to in writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to 2015’s suspenseful slow-burning cannibal Western, Bone Tomahawk: Vaughn, a sly-but-often-ill-used actor whose manic motormouth presence on screen often borders on the overbearing, dials all of his tics down to play a recovering alcoholic named Bradley Thomas. The giant inked crucifix on the back of his shaved head telegraphs a past on the wrong side of the law. He’s quiet and still, like an M-80 is before its fuse is lit. We can tell right off the bat that it’s only a matter of time before he’s going to detonate. And after being laid off from his job as a mechanic and learning that his wife (Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter) has been cheating on him, the inevitable explosion comes. He completely demolishes his wife’s car with his bare fists in a scene that starts off as semi-comical and then quickly becomes terrifying.
With no money coming in, and let’s be honest, a cranial tattoo that’s going to make a serious job interview problematic, Bradley (definitely not “Brad”) starts working for a big-league drug dealer as a bagman, enforcer, and all-around scary dude for hire. When a late-night drug deal goes south, resulting in dead cops thanks to a couple of trigger-happy goons from a rival gang, he ends up in jail. But that’s just the beginning of his misery.
Bradley’s wife is now pregnant with a child he’ll now never get to meet — or at least won’t get to meet for a very long time. And the cartel leader whose dope went missing in the botched deal wants restitution. He kidnaps Bradley’s pregnant wife and has one of his minions (played with lip-smacking perversity by that Teutonic satyr, Udo Kier) make some heinously stomach-churning threats on the unborn baby’s life. Unless, of course, Bradley does something for him while he’s behind bars. This will involve maiming and murdering his way up (or, rather, down) the prison-system ladder until he’s tossed into the lawless, scuzzball sewer of depravity known as Cell Block 99, which just happens to be lorded over by a good ol’ boy warden played by Don Johnson.
Johnson, who quietly has been turning in some of the best performances of his career lately in such films as Django Unchained and Cold in July, knows exactly what kind of deranged gutter pulp he’s in. And he plays the part of the cigar-chomping amoral sadist like a Forty-Second Street Toscanini. Meanwhile, Vaughn never lets his prison mates see his desperation. He just beats the snot out of people for reasons only he understands — and in some small part the audience can sympathize with. That, in itself, is a small miracle of acting. But Vaughn’s real achievement is his character’s physicality. Resourceful and much smarter than we’re led to believe at the opening of the film, Vaughn’s Bradley is a single-minded vessel of bareknuckle violence. Vaughn rarely lets you see his pulse rise. And he uses his tall, beefy frame like a minimalist, bringing to mind the slo-mo Zen punishment once dished out by Steven Seagal before he became a joke. He’s menacing without ever breaking a sweat.
Like Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 takes its sweet time building to its corrosive, hide-your-eyes climax of sinew-shredding, flesh-scraping, limb-cracking mayhem (whoever did the celery-snapping Foley work here would get an Oscar if we lived in a world where disreputable genre films like this one got nominated for Oscars). And when it finally arrives it’s so much grosser than you imagined that you just have to take your hat off to him — or reach for a barf bag. Zahler has made as good a film as a film like this can be. Whether or not there’s an audience for something this extreme, though, is a totally different matter. I suspect there isn’t. I’m also a bit relieved there isn’t. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is being released without a rating. So let me suggest one: CE, for Caveat Emptor. You’ve been warned. B+