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BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017)
Review by LL Soares
Actor Vince Vaughan’s career has taken some very interesting twists and turns lately. He became a star because of roles in comedy films like SWINGERS (1996), OLD SCHOOL (2003), DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY (2004), WEDDING CRASHERS (2005), and THE BREAK-UP (2006), but there’s always been a dark undercurrent to his film work. After all, he also starred in Gus Van Zant’s remake of PSYCHO (1998), as well as the serial killer drama CLAY PIGEONS (also 1998), and THE CELL (2000). He was also one of the stars of the second season of the HBO series TRUE DETECTIVE in 2015. But maybe his darkest choice of all might be Vaughan’s turn as Bradley Thomas in BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017).
Directed by S. Craig Zahler, who also gave us the horror/western BONE TOMAHAWK (2015), BRAWL is a gradual descent into Hell, captured on film. When we first meet Vaughan’s Bradley, he works as a tow truck driver, and he has an especially bad day, a portent of things to come. First, he gets fired from his job (there are cutbacks), then he goes home early to find his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter, who played Dexter’s sister Debra on DEXTER, and also starred in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, 2005, and QUARANTINE, 2008), about to drive off. When he stops her, she admits to him that she is having an affair and is considering leaving him. The fact that she so readily tells him this is surprising. He tells her to go in the house and proceeds to rip her car apart with his bare hands, throwing the hood into the street, smashing windows and headlights, and leaving it a wreck. This is a man with a lot of anger inside him.
When he goes into the house there is real tension. Will he be violent toward his wife, too? But he seems to be the kind of man who takes out his anger on objects rather than people. The two talk and come to an understanding. Something bad happened in the past that damaged both of them, and they’re smart enough to acknowledge that and realize their lives have to change.
But the first big change Bradley makes isn’t necessarily a good one. Now that he’s out of work, he needs a job, so he looks up his old friend Gil (Marc Blucas, who played Riley Finn on the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER TV series, and starred in the movie ANIMALS, based on the novel by Skipp & Spector), a drug dealer. Bradley used to work for him before, and tried to go straight, but with hard times comes hard decisions.
We jump ahead a few months, and Bradley is making deliveries and is Gil’s most trusted guy. So Bradley’s the one Gil chooses to go on a run with some new guys who work for a gangster he’s considering partnering up with, named Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito). The drug deal goes badly, however, and there’s a shootout with the cops. Bradley is the last one standing, and refuses to name names. So he goes off to prison.
It’s a medium-security prison and Bradley seems like he can deal with it. But then everything goes horribly wrong. Eleazar decides that Bradley owes him $3 million for the botched drug deal and kidnaps Bradley’s pregnant wife. He says he’ll do some pretty horrible things to her and the unborn child if Bradley doesn’t do a job for him. He wants Bradley to get transferred to another prison, a maximum security prison called Redleaf, and kill someone named Christopher Bridge. The details are related to Bradley by a European gentleman played by the great character actor Udo Kier (whose character is called “Placid Man” in the credits).
Bradley is left to his own, however, on how to get to Redleaf. Here’s where the movie becomes a darker version of Nicolas Winding Refn’s BRONSON, as Bradley takes on all and any prison guards who get in his way, badly injuring a few, and he gets his transfer. But Redleaf is a hellhole run by a warden named Tuggs (Don Johnson, also in MIAMI VICE, 1984 – 1990, and the movies A BOY AND HIS DOG, 1975, and DJANGO UNCHAINED, 2012).
Not only that, but the cell block he has to get to, the titular Cell Block 99, is where the most violent offenders are kept. And to get there he has to do even worse things. He does all this to free his wife and child, but he finds himself in a place no sane man would want to be in, and it starts to change him.
Oh, and soon after his arrival at Redleaf, Tuggs puts a belt on Bradley that delivers staggering electric shocks at the push of a button, and isn’t shy about using it.
BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is a humorless, violent, dark film, and I enjoyed every minute of it. At times, I found myself wondering how this movie even got made with a big name star. It has more in common with the darker episodes of the HBO TV series OZ than it has when mainstream movie fare.
Vaughan’s Bradley Thomas is a very sympathetic character, however. Despite the violent things he does, we feel that he’s a good man, put in an impossible situation. He does what he has to do, but you can tell it goes against his basic nature. But he never hesitates, because he will do anything for his family.
If I had seen this movie in 2017, there’s a good chance it would have made my list of best films of the year. It is so different from everything else I saw last year, and definitely haunts you after it’s over. I really liked this movie a lot, but I know not everyone will have the same reaction. So, if you like your movies violent and dark, you’ll definitely want to check this one out. Otherwise, you might want to stay away.
Descents into Hell aren’t for everyone, but I give it four knives.
© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares
LL Soares gives BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 ~four knives.