When you think of intimidating actors, Vince Vaughn probably isn’t the first guy to come to mind. Despite his towering height and some legitimately great dramatic roles over the years, his sharp wit and long history as a Hollywood funnyman have led to him being viewed as a primarily comedic performer. All of that is guaranteed to change with the release of S. Craig Zahler’s incomparably badass Brawl in Cell Block 99, which features Vince Vaughn like never before.
This neo-western revenge-thriller finds Bradley (Vaughn), a down-and-out member of the working class, being forced to turn to a life of non-violent crime after losing his job — and almost losing his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) in the process. When a drug deal goes wrong and police officers end up dead, Bradley turns on his “coworkers” and subsequently turns himself in. Sentenced to a few years in prison, Bradley plans on serving his time peacefully, but when he is visited by an associate of the men he double-crossed — who threatens to murder his wife and unborn child — Bradley is forced to disrupt the entire prison system.
Providing 140 minutes of sheer intensity, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a legitimate epic. Zahler refuses to pull any punches, showcasing violence with absolute horror. Every single one of the prison fights Bradley engages in is absolutely brutal, with bones being broken, teeth being shattered, and flesh being torn apart. It’d be a massive lie to say that these sequences aren’t wildly entertaining, but they’re genuinely disturbing at the same time — as graphic violence should be.
But in order for graphic violence to come across as genuine and justifiable, there has to be a protagonist who can draw an emotional response — and Vaughn is more than up for the task here. His performance as a flawed but good-natured man who ended up on the wrong side of the law feels totally authentic. It’s elevated even further by the fact that Bradley is a legitimate tough guy whose story also happens to be deeply heartbreaking. He’s such an empathetic character that even when he behaves immorally, it’s understood that he’s simply trying to protect his family. He’s doing what most of us would do if we were put in his shoes.
Throughout the film, Zahler approaches a number of controversial social and political issues with a rare amount of subtlety. While the film never transitions into full-fledged political territory, Zahler doesn’t shy away from analyzing the criminal justice system, the War on Drugs, the economic crises in America, and, to an odd degree, abortion. And though Brawl in Cell Block 99 doesn’t take any firm stances on any of these subjects, it’s a purely American film. It focuses on American citizens dealing with American problems in an American setting. For better or worse. In one of the best scenes in the movie, a detective questions Bradley about his patriotism. Throughout their conversation, it becomes clear that, despite coming face to face with the pitfalls of his homeland, Bradley is a man who loves America.
This revelation adds an unexpected layer to Brawl in Cell Block 99. It never loses sight of its action-packed nature, but Zahler makes sure that the people that are engaging in horrific acts onscreen are fully developed and relatable. We may not agree with the choices Bradley makes or the lengths that he goes in order to protect his family, but we damn sure understand them. And when he starts cracking skulls, it becomes almost impossible not to cheer him on; reveling in the glorious brutality of Brawl in Cell Block 99.
This review originally ran as part of our Fantastic Fest 2017 coverage. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is now playing in select theaters and on VOD.