Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a tough film to classify. From the director of Bone Tomahawk (infamous for a certain violent scene) comes a Vince Vaughn led revenge thriller which is equal parts plain nasty gore, and (very) dark comedy. A modern day grindhouse which delivers.
It starts ordinary enough with the stoic ex-boxer Bradley (Vaughn) being fired from his job and then returning home to find his wife is cheating on him. From there Bradley takes on a job as a “drug mover” (his own words) for his old friend Gil. A certain meeting doesn’t go quite to plan and Bradley finds himself with his back to the wall with everything to lose. He must find do something that seems nigh on impossible or face the consequences. I don’t want to give anything else away, but let me just warn any potential viewers that this film gets incredibly graphic.
The violent action sequences are often filmed in a minimum number of shots, and with little camera movement. There is no score, only the sound of the punches landing, and bones breaking. This decision makes the fights seem more realistic and thus more brutal. It’s heightened certainly, with Vaughn barely flinching from punches to the face, but it never stretches into the totally cartoon of say Django Unchained. Hence why the violence proves to be so disturbing and stomach-turning.
The actual story is rather straight forward, and is not full of twists and surprises. Instead director and writer S. Craig Zahler allows all the talk to be about Vaughn, the violence and the humour. Which, to be honest, are the best parts about the movie and so it proves to be a good decision. Vaughn nails the black comedy as the giant monster of a man, Bradley. And also proves he can handle action, delivering crisp choreography with his co-stars.
The pacing is unusual, with the first half or so, ambling along. However after a certain visit that Bradley receives, the movie picks up the pace in a sprint to the finish. There is no scene out of place in the second half. But this drastic shift does make the film an uneven one.
Of all the films at the festival, this will no doubt prove to be one of the most divisive. The graphicness of it will lead some to label it torture porn. It is not as exploitative as that, this is no Hostel or Saw. But it is still certainly a difficult watch at times. If you want a truly unique movie-going experience though, and are not afraid of a bit of gore, I’d definitely recommend trying Brawl in Cell Block 99. Just don’t blame me if it makes you nauseous.