Saturday 16 January 2021

Movie Review: Brawl In Cell Block 99 (2017)

A prison drama with a difference, Brawl In Cell Block 99 layers on violence, gore, attitude and plot twists in a grindhouse celebration.

Physically imposing recovered alcoholic Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is laid off from his tow-truck driver job, and on the same day discovers his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) having an affair. After he vents his frustration they decide to stick together and try to repair their relationship, and their economic fortunes improve once Bradley starts working as a mule for drug distributor Gil.

18 months later Bradley and Lauren have graduated to a nice house, Lauren is pregnant and Gil leans on Bradley to help establish a partnership with a Mexican cartel. But a pickup operation goes wrong, Bradley is involved in a shootout with police, arrested and sentenced to seven years at a medium security prison. Lauren vows to wait for him, but Bradley is soon visited by a Placid Man (Udo Kier) and realizes his troubles are only just beginning.

As bad as things are when Bradley initially loses his freedom, it is sufficient to note things will get a lot worse, and not in accordance with any familiar prison drama conventions. Not much more should be revealed about the plot of Brawl In Cell Block 99, because writer and director S. Craig Zahler uses the basic premise as a jumping off point to a mazy, often startling prison-set thriller where genre expectations are teased then stomped. Zahler's follow-up to the excellent Bone Tomahawk is equally brilliant, with punctuations of humour and gobs of jaw-dropping violence sparring with a deeply human core.

The character of Bradley (not Brad) is a memorable creation, brought to life by an almost unrecognizable Vince Vaughn achieving an unlikely career highlight. Zahler contrives to amplify Bradley's dimensions to giant bruiser levels, and an early man-versus-car battles establishes his credentials at tolerating pain and inflicting damage.

Demonstrating patience in deploying violence, the first half concentrates on build-up and feints disinterest in confrontations, Bradley almost going out of his way to avoid harming others. But driven by the imperative of protecting family, base instincts are unleashed behind prison walls. Carnage on the human body is doled out with relish, made just about tolerable by a cartoonish embrace.

The grim aesthetics enhance Bradley's ordeal. The early scenes are saturated in depressing blues and greys as Bradley accepts bad luck as the only luck he will ever have, then dank browns and oranges take over as he falls ever deeper into prison system hell. The relatively sparse cast includes Don Johnson having great fun as a cigar-chomping prison warden seasoned in separating vicious men from their freedom.

Surprising, wicked and proudly brutal, Brawl In Cell Block 99 pulls no punches.

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