Writer/director S Craig Zahler made an impression with his 2015 debut Bone Tomahawk, a western featuring career-best work from Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins. The film had great characters, quotable dialogue and unfolded at a steady pace, but it really cemented itself in viewers minds due to its third act switch to horror flick – including a sequence of such visceral horror it seared itself into the minds of everyone who saw it. Now Zahler is back with Brawl in Cell Block 99, and just like his debut the film has a great script and is filled with lashings of shocking violence.
The story follows Bradley (Vince Vaughn), who after getting fired from his job decides to become a drug runner to provide a better life for his pregnant wife. His plan goes swimmingly until he’s caught and sentenced to seven years; added to that, a vengeful former employer orders him to kill a fellow prisoner, or his wife and unborn child will suffer the consequences.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 really feels like a refugee from seventies cinema, from the pacing right down look to the soundtrack choices. Instead of being a nostalgic gimmick, this stripped down style works in the movie's favour, and brings viewers deeper into the story.
Vaughn may seem like an odd choice for the lead, but with his tall, muscle-bound frame he fits the character perfectly. Bradley is a gentle soul on the surface, but there’s always a sense of simmering violence to him. The actor is also surprisingly convincing during the fights, which are typically shot in long takes with no music. The supporting cast –including Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson and Udo Kier – also do fine work, though Vaughn dominates proceedings.
Despite unfolding at a measured pace, Brawl in Cell Block 99 never once feels slow or like its dragging. The film also shows Zahler has lost none of his talent for gore, with the film unleashing several wince-inducing moments of bloodshed, including a finale that will likely result in several yelps of shock. Despite this intensity, the violence always feels like it serves a function, instead of being for cheap thrills.
Despite being an anti-hero it’s hard not to root for Bradley as events spiral from bad to terrible to flat-out hellish, though the film’s liberal use of black humour prevents it from becoming a slog. Zahler’s ear for pulpy dialogue has also carried over from his debut, with even the supporting characters getting a moment to shine. Brawl in Cell Block 99 ‘s raw brutality and retro feel won’t be for everyone, but for those who enjoy their thrillers hard-boiled and bloodsoaked it doesn’t get much better than this.