With a title like Brawl in Cell Block 99, one might think that S. Craig Zahler’s second directorial effort is an exploitation film filled with B-movie action. There are elements in the script and set pieces that signal toward grindhouse action, sure, but Brawl in Cell Block 99 is more than just a B-movie. It is a clever, exploitation action pastiche.
Following Zahler’s first film, Bone Tomahawk, which seamlessly blended genres without sacrificing the artistic beauty or history of those genres, it is no surprise that he continues to have a brilliant handle on genre with Brawl.
The first 15 minutes of the film are utterly transfixing. A day could not be worse for a man like Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn). He loses his job and comes home to find his wife leaving to continue an affair that she has been engaging in for three months. Aside from one outburst of violence—violence which he inflicts only on himself and some property—Bradley handles this day from hell with an astounding calm.
Even as his world spirals downward to the point where he ends up in prison with a seven-year sentence, Bradley continues to have a calculated poise.
As Bradley handles everything deliberately, so does the filmmaker. Vaughn’s stoic performance and the slow burn pace make for a film that could read boring to a fan of more high-octane genre cinema, but it delivers nonetheless as a vicious action piece with both grindhouse sensibilities and a knack for selling its simple story with quiet pauses.
The potential downside of Brawl in Cell Block 99 could be its simple story, its linear trajectory of Vaughn-as-pressure-cooker bursting into brutal rages as necessary to achieve his end-goal. Even at a hefty two hours and 12 minutes, this is all the story the film needs to feel full.
The dialogue can get heavy on the cheeky one-liners and cliches. That could prove harmful to the film, but this is in-line with the genre to which the film pays homage. If anything, this script is more clever than your average action movie.
Brawl is no thinking-person’s movie. It isn’t going to get your mind going about the tenants of stoicism in the face extreme pressure or break your heart over Bradley’s plight. It is a movie with Brawl in the title, after all.
What the film will do is awe you with its exquisite fight choreography and brilliant handling of the camera in and out of combat. Vaughn will impress with his brutish performance. Brawl will entertain for those looking for a fresh take on an old favorite.
Brawl in Cell Block 99: B+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)