A low-level criminal has to fight his way through prison before misery befalls his kidnapped wife.
Directed by S. Craig Zahler
Starring Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, and Don Johnson
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
While Vaughn is credibly portraying the character of Bradley Thomas, Bradley Thomas as written less impressively. The criminal with a heart of gold is a tiresome trope. I (mostly) enjoy Bradley fight and carom heedlessly towards his goal, but I don’t like him. That’s normally not a problem, but it appears from the many breadcrumbs that Zahler drops that he likes Bradley, and he therefore sets up contrivances that make him look better by comparison to the people around him. His racist and misogynist drug lord boss gets mild pushback from Bradley. His wife humors his patronizing overprotectiveness. His radar is uncanny, such that he sniffs out the cops during the drug pickup with no tip to the viewer. Even his reaction to Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) cheating on him, an outburst that should send her away never to return, is not threatening as much as it is a man knowing himself, like reacting so destructively to this news, in this way, is one more strength. ‘At least he didn’t hit her’ is the bar the film is setting for him.
However, all this happens before he gets sent to prison and his pregnant wife is abducted, after which point all his behavior is understandable and he’s paying for whatever flaws he earlier had. No matter how Bradley is portrayed before he arrives in jail, it’s easy to get fully behind him when the stakes are so high. The set design has Bradley evocatively going back in time, from the flourescent lights of the medium-security prison to the natural light of the max prison and finally the torture chamber in the titular block. That’s where he gets that stun belt, complete with a sound effect that vibrates the center of the viewer’s brain, a sonic complement to the nightmarish sounds the troglodytes made in Bone Tomahawk. The viewer keeps waiting for Bradley to take a breath as he goes on this descent, maybe share his plight with a sympathetic prisoner and plot a strategy, but Zahler keeps the tension and the momentum at breakneck pace. Bradley keeps fighting and grappling and stomping his way to his goal. The test for any visceral action movie is, can it get me to involuntarily yell out? I saw too many bones in Brawl in Cell Block 99 to not yell out. The film takes its time in getting to the action, much like Bone Tomahawk did, and again, when Zahler takes the brakes off, he’s giving the viewer something new.
Eventually, the adrenaline from all that fighting dissipates and one is left with mild discomfort and brutal images seared onto retinas. The vicarious thrill in the moment turns into an icky regret. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a well-made and well-acted film that reaches out of the screen and grabs the viewer by the spleen, but it’s also an empty endeavor that takes glee in how much gore it can put on screen. Nowhere is this more apparent than the final shot. The viewer is treated to Bradley’s head ripped apart by a bullet, followed by a Motown song that reinforces the roots of the film. That choice leaves such a sour taste in my mouth, but at least it’s not the taste of shit as my head is stomped into a toilet hole. B-