by Scott Bates
Best known for his “likable everyman” roles in mainstream romcoms such as The Break-Up and Couples Retreat, Vince Vaughn takes on the role of a tough, tattooed drug courier ordered to perform a prison hit after he finds himself behind bars in Bone Tomahawk director S Craig Zahler’s brutal grindhouse thriller Brawl In Cell Block 99.
Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas is a former boxer turned drug courier who works for Gil (Marc Blucas), an old friend, delivering packages to clients by day and relaxing at home with his pregnant wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) by night. One day, Gil sends Bradley along with two associates to retrieve a package dumped in the harbour – the retrieval is successful, but the getaway isn’t. Bradley soon finds himself incarcerated at Greenleaf penitentiary, where he’s informed by a mysterious visitor that Lauren has been kidnapped and will be killed unless he murders a fellow prisoner residing in cell block 99.
Director Zahler is making a name for himself with dark, gritty genre films – his 2015 western Bone Tomahawk received rave reviews and has garnered a cult following, and now Cell Block 99 looks likely to do the same. This isn’t your average fast-paced Hollywood action film – it’s a rare example of a thriller that takes its time to tell its story and develop its characters, and respects the intelligence of its audience by not throwing in an unnecessary action sequence every 15 minutes. Bradley doesn’t end up behind bars until around 40 minutes in, and it’s another 20 minutes before things begin to get really violent. And make no mistake about it, this is one violent film, especially in its second half. There’s enough broken limbs and stomped-on heads here to shock even the most hardened gore fanatic – the elevator scene in Drive looks like Balamory compared to this.
That said, the violence never feels overly nasty, not given the film’s story, and if anything just goes to show just what a genuinely great actor Vaughn is – it’s hard to imagine Fred Claus snapping arms and legs with reckless abandon but Vaughn manages to pull off all his brawls here (and there is more than just the one in cell block 99) as convincingly as any trained fighter or action star. Bradley Thomas is a determined, desperate man capable of doing terrible things, and Vaughn plays the emotional elements of him just as well as the physical stuff. The first half-hour of the film introduces us to Bradley and allows us to get to know him as a person, making us sympathetic for him when his wife is threatened and giving us an idea of what he can do if he really wants to – an early scene features Bradley literally tearing up a car after discovering Lauren’s infidelity, smashing windows, pulling out mirrors and headlights, even tearing off the hood and launching it across the street. But he’s clearly a man of some sensitivity – he’d rather take out his anger on the car than Lauren herself, calmly going inside their house to talk to her afterwards.
It’s rare that a genre film like Cell Block 99 has such a well-developed, genuinely engaging lead character, and moves at a pace that favours character and plot development just as much as action. The brawls themselves are shot particularly well, with none of the rapid cutting every second so often seen in bigger Hollywood films. We really get the full impact of what’s going on – an arm break in the first fight was just one of several moments that elicited a physical and audible reaction from my audience.
With its uncompromisingly graphic violence and relatively slow pace, Cell Block 99 certainly won’t be for everyone, but genre fans and those wanting an action film that stands out from the crowd will certainly find plenty to like. Vaughn’s naysaysers should give it a watch as well – this could really be the beginning of a Matthew McConaughey-style career revival for him.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is on DVD & Blu-Ray Boxing Day!