D: S. Craig Zahler / 132m
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Marc Blucas, Dion Mucciacito, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Geno Segers, Victor Almanzar, Willie C. Carpenter, Tom Guiry, Clark Johnson, Pooja Kumar, Fred Melamed
In Craig S. Zahler’s follow up to Bone Tomahawk (2015), Vince Vaughn is Bradley (never Brad) Thomas, a man who turns to being a drug runner when he gets laid off from his job at an auto-repair shop. Eighteen months later, he and his wife, Lauren (Carpenter), are expecting a baby (their second after they lost the first), and living a pretty luxurious lifestyle; crime has been good to them. Bradley works for an old friend, Gil (Blucas), but when Gil goes into partnership with a Mexican drug boss called Eleazar (Mucciacito), their first pick up ends in a shootout with the police and Bradley causing the death of one of Eleazar’s men and incapacitating another. Despite this, he’s sentenced to seven years in a medium security prison. But Eleazar wants revenge. He has Lauren kidnapped, and through an emissary (Kier), lets Bradley know that unless he kills an inmate at a maximum security hellhole called Redleaf, his unborn baby will be “operated on”. Getting transferred to Redleaf is the easy part however, while surviving it, and the regime set up by Warden Tuggs (Johnson), is a whole other matter…
In recent years, Vince Vaughn’s career has been about relinquishing his comic persona in favour of more dramatic roles, from his appearance in Season Two of True Detective (2015) to his role in the Oscar-winning Hacksaw Ridge (2016). Now he gives his best dramatic performance yet as a drug runner with principles, the stoic Bradley Thomas, a man you can hit with a billy club and he’ll barely flinch. It’s a role that keeps him quiet for much of the picture, but with Vaughn it’s all in the eyes and the way they can convey a range of emotions with clarity and precision. You know when Bradley is angry, you know when he’s trying to keep that anger in check, and you know when he’s about to unleash that anger. This all makes Bradley something of a coiled spring, and Vaughn is a commanding physical presence in the role, expertly channelling Bradley’s propensity for extreme violence while maintaining the character’s deep-rooted humanity. Vaughn is never less than convincing, and he brings an intensity to the part that is mesmerising.
He’s ably supported by Carpenter, Kier and Johnson, but while the performances are good, the movie does suffer from a storyline that, once it picks up momentum and Bradley starts hurting people in ever more violent ways, reveals itself to be more than a little on the slight side. There’s a prologue that proves superfluous, while the stretch that leads up to Bradley’s incarceration is long-winded and could have benefited from some judicious cutting (when will movie makers learn that scenes where characters drive from place to place looking thoughtful don’t add anything to a movie?). But even when Bradley does start showing us what he’s really good at, and the movie’s pace increases, what we’re left with is a succession of increasingly violent (and cartoonish) altercations that are well choreographed and executed, but which also appear to be the movie’s sole raison d’être. With this in mind, and despite the visceral and very effective quality of the fight scenes, the movie reveals a hollow centre that stops it from being as rewarding a viewing experience as intended. Zahler is certainly a director of talent, and the movie’s visual aesthetic becomes more and more squalid as Bradley’s descent into prison hell continues. But this is that difficult second feature that doesn’t quite match the promise raised by its predecessor.
Rating: 6/10 – Vaughn’s imposing performance is the main attraction here, and while it helps elevate the material above its grindhouse ambitions, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is still a movie that doesn’t work as well as it should; overlong, and with Bradley impervious to any blows that come his way, there’s too little in the way of actual jeopardy for the character to find himself in, making this a movie where tension is ignored, and nihilism is the primary order of the day.