Although frequently labeled as a grindhouse/exploitation movie, S. Craig Zahler’s “Brawl in Cell Block 99” has too much intellectual flavor to qualify as anything that bland. Gratuitous violence? Some, yes, in the second half; not throughout the entire movie, and certainly not as much as one might expect simply from how intense it is when it’s there. The movie’s only real link to that genre would be the unmistakably low-budget prosthetics used in fight scenes to show injuries or fatalities. In fact, if you didn’t know that that’s done as an homage to 1970s grindhouse cinema, you’d feel painfully embarrassed for Zahler and everyone in the scene.
In the film, Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) becomes a drug runner to get out of poverty and is coerced into assisting with a dangerous pickup orchestrated by Mexican drug lord Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito). When the pickup is compromised, Bradley ends up in prison and is held accountable by Eleazar, who demands restitution. When he threatens Bradley’s wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), Bradley becomes determined to do anything asked of him – even incredibly horrible things – to ensure her safety.
Whether or not you object to elaborate on-screen carnage, the violence in “Brawl in Cell Block 99” doesn’t overwhelm or cheapen the plot. In fact, it’s arguably necessary for furthering the plot, given what Bradley’s up against with antagonists like the ultra-barbaric Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson). Sure, the blood-drenched butchery in the savage scuffles could be implied instead of shown. But that kind of modesty would pander more to squeamish viewers than the gore panders to exploitation-driven audiences. And if someone’s too prudish to sit through the movie’s titular melees, they’re probably out of their depth watching a movie set in a penitentiary anyhow.
To me, this movie is about a man of integrity who’s put into situations that require him to somewhat reluctantly allow his principles to tamper with his moral compass. Vaughn unleashes an astonishing capacity for dramatic acting and conveys Bradley’s cognitive dissonance as he balances wanting to do the right thing with needing to do very wrong things. Supporting Vaughn’s performance, Johnson’s portrayal of Tuggs convinces you of the desperation planted in Bradley’s psyche, almost justifying what happens when Bradley relinquishes his self-control. As guys begin to start fights with Bradley, he tends to win – and in spectacular fashion – because he’s a former boxer and, to quote him, “more of a finisher.” So, the movie’s violence is a natural byproduct of combining a psychologically turbulent, trained fighter with the incendiary actions of people threatening him and his family.
Zahler enables viewers to viscerally empathize with Bradley by using impactful set design to have the story unfold in what look like medieval dungeons. The grimy walls and overwhelming filth are enhanced by an ever-present physical darkness that sustains the heavy and morose ambiance. Part of this effect was achieved by Zahler’s use of natural light for most (more than 70 percent) of the movie. In addition, by showing how degrading the prison intake process is, Zahler walks viewers through Bradley’s transition from a stable life to an uncivilized future. This has the added effect of establishing the logistical, practical parameters within which Bradley must operate while trying to placate Eleazar. That, in turn, constructs the premise of the lengths to which Bradley will have to go to accomplish what’s demanded of him – namely, drastic measures executed through extreme violence.
The writing for this movie (also done by Zahler) is noteworthy for its realism. There are dozens of quotable lines that punctuate emotional peaks, evoke soft humor in the midst of horror and subtly mock incongruities in the American justice system. The dialogue between Bradley and Lauren realistically shows a genuinely smitten couple, making it easy to believe that Bradley would do anything to save Lauren. That sensation is amplified by Carpenter’s use of precise nuances in facial expressions and body language to emote. And the creepy lines written for antagonist Placid Man (Udo Kier) capture the menacing nature of his grotesque character. Plus, Kier uses a soothing cadence while saying appalling things when threatening Bradley, resembling Peter Lorre’s style in his timeless villainous roles. No measure of violence could overshadow – or even diminish – this movie’s convincing language and memorable acting.
Perhaps the only strikingly apparent flaw in the movie is its poor continuity editing. Within the same scene, key props frequently move from cut to cut, and it’s very noticeable. There’s even a scene in which a dead body inexplicably disappears shortly after the person is killed. And the (dead) character goes on to be addressed later in the scene by someone who’s expecting an answer, so the person was clearly intended to remain on set. I can’t figure out how that went unnoticed during post-production. Still, it’s a forgivable mistake because of how great the movie is overall.
“Brawl in Cell Block 99” isn’t a tasteless B-movie produced to exploit appetites for sensational violence (i.e., a grindhouse movie), as some believe it to be. The violence is almost like its own character, written in as part of the lead ensemble in a supporting role. It carries the plot along in the second half of the movie, but it doesn’t deplete the energy built up through rich character development in the first half. The directing is compelling, the acting is on point, the writing is original, the set design is engrossing and the soundtrack (full of soul tracks co-composed by Zahler and Jeff Heriott) is catchy. If you’ve been avoiding seeing this movie because you thought it was a shallow excuse for watching mindless fisticuffs and nothing else, you’ve been missing out for no reason. Give it a try; you might be surprised by how misled you were.
Kathleen Hearons is an editor, writer, voice over actor and avid cinephile. She lives and works in the greater Los Angeles area.