Film Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99

S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a brutal action thriller with a great central performance from Vince Vaughn. It is certainly not a film for the faint of heart.

After getting fired from his job, Bradley Thomas sees becoming a drug runner as a solution to his financial situation. With his wife Lauren pregnant, Bradley takes a risky job, that has dire consequences…

By its title, it would be fair to assume that Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a straightforward action movie. And whilst there are elements of this at play, the film moves beyond a basic premise. Part of what makes the film engaging is that it is unclear where the narrative will go. To prison certainly, but how and what happens next are up for debate.

Writer-director S. Craig Zahler builds its protagonist and its narrative with consideration. There is little doubt that viewers will be rooting for Bradley, yet his character is still given sufficient depth. Other characters later in the film fall into caricature territory, but serve their purpose nevertheless.

The film is very restrained with its action until the final third. At this point, all bets are off. The first action scene is shocking, but pales in comparison with what is to follow. The violence is exceptional. It is wince-inducing, and sometimes harrowing. The fights are well choreographed, and benefit from the long shots to heighten tension and brutality. The art direction successfully conveys a grim and gritty prison system.

Vince Vaughn is great as Bradley. It is a departure for the actor to play a more physical and less verbal character, but he pulls it off. Don Johnson is great, whilst Udo Kier fills his particular niche in an apt fashion.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a striking film. It does not lend itself to repeat viewings, but the audience will not be disappointed.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2017.