After he loses his job and almost his marriage, Bradley Thomas (played a bald, tattooed and unnervingly serious Vince Vaughn) turns to drug running to provide a better life for his family.
18 months later, his wife Lauren (Dexter‘s Jennifer Carpenter) is heavily pregnant, and he gets caught up in a pick up that goes south. In an effort to shorten his sentence, he betrays those he was working with, but is still sent to prison.
Once inside, those he wronged get in touch, and require him to carry out some violent acts to save his wife and unborn child.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 gained itself a bit of a reputation for the savage and brutal violence it depicts, and it’s a reputation well earned. The climax doesn’t quite end in the full on brawl you might expect from the title, and is more of a very slow and steady crescendo – but the deliberate nature in which Bradley fights his way through the prison makes it all the horrifying, and will have you wincing as you watch.
Vaughn is impressive in this new persona as a hardened action hero peppered with wry, dry humour. His towering presence at 6 foot 5 makes for a very effective ex-boxer who can take his fellow inmates down with such ease, and the character of Bradley comes across as a kind of awkward robotic figure, only showing emotion when it comes to matters of his family. It’s interesting to see Vaughn branch out into a different kind of role, and we’re intrigued to see if he does more of this kind of film in the future.
Jennifer Carpenter is strong too, but is frankly given barely anything to do. She gets her moment of vindication after being a damsel in distress for much of the film, but it would have been good to see an actress of her calibre have more to get stuck into.
There’s a bleached, high contrast aesthetic to the film which works well with the nature of the story, and director S. Craig Zahler succeeds in making the viewer feel just as uncomfortable as Bradley once he enters prison and is subject to the most dire conditions. The soulful soundtrack works too to provide something more upbeat.
Whilst there’s a lot to like here, it’s just a shame that it all happens in the last 30ish minutes. What we have up until then is an extremely slow build up and necessary exposition of plot, but the slow burn comes at the price of actually gripping and engaging the viewer. It’s only once Bradley is convicted and in prison that the film steps up a gear, and holds your interest.
3 stars from us for Brawl in Cell Block 99 – it does extremely well at creating a mood and conveying the brutality of violence, but it’s only the final act that saves it from being thoroughly average.
Have a watch of the trailer below, or click here to own Brawl in Cell Block 99 on DVD.