Brawl In Cell Block 99 isn’t quite the film one would think it would be. Yes, it’s a gruesome and unrelenting film from S. Craig Zahler whose first film BONE TOMAHAWK is an unnerving horror western, but for as raw and unprocessed as BRAWL can be, this film has something to say. It is very much akin to the social commentaries of the films of the 1970s, with what it has to say about our current political and cultural rift that has been reeling for the past few years.
Vince Vaugh has never been better as Bradley Thomas, the forever man whose stoicism would give Max Cherry a run for his money. Bradley is quiet and represses his rage only to exhaust it when needed. Vaughn’s physicality and economy of movement is something that Zahler capitalizes on in the best way possible. Vaughn commands the screen, at all times, and gives the finest performance of his career.
The supporting cast of Jennifer Carpenter, Tom Guiry, Marc Blucas, Fred Melamed are fantastic as they never overplay their hand. They know exactly how to embody the role and are effortless. Udo Kier, Clark Johnson, and Don Johnson show up in pivotal roles that play directly on the respective actor’s cache. Johnson has a brief scene with limited dialogue as the detective who attempts to offer Vaughn a deal, and before doing so takes a swipe not only at Putin but those who have turned the American flag into a fetish.
Don Johnson shows up in the third act as a wickedly fun mustache wielding, cigar smoking, leather glove wearing warden of a maximum security prison who promises Vaugh microscopic freedom. Johnson has hit such a cool phase in a long career; he’s used by terrific auteurs in roles that parlay his gravitas in a very sensible and rewarding way.
Brawl is a lot of fun, and it’s simmering pace strikes the fuse right from the opening scene and burns quietly, at a snail pace, until the final frame where it explodes and the credits roll. The film has something to say, but there is so much exposed that it takes a while for the viewer to digest it. It’s very much the genre picture that we’re promised, but there is a lot of emotion and sensitivity to it. It’s a movie that would have stared Bruce Dern or James Caan or Peter Boyle had it been made in the 70s, critiquing much of the same ‘the cake is a lie’ narratives that ran rampant during that fertile era of cinema.
The film will be too much for some viewers, and that includes some who enjoyed Bone Tomahawk. There’s more at stake in regards to this picture, there is a relatable dynamic that is bigger than cannibal Indians ripping people in half. There’s a realism to this, that weaves back and forth between our reality and surrealism that we don’t quite get from films like this. Regardless, S. Craig Zahler is cinematic lightning in a bottle, and his next film, Dragged Across Concrete staring Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as a pair of dirty cops is set to be released in 2018, and that film cannot come soon enough.
Review by Frank Mengarelli