Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Inexorable descent into sheer brutality

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While delivering a fair share of remorseless violence to shock you, “Brawl in Cell Block 99” patiently takes its time before delivering that, and I sort of appreciate its slow but inexorable descent into sheer brutality. While some of those brutally violent moments in the film will surely make you cringe for good reasons, the movie is tense and gripping thanks to its taut, efficient storytelling and the surprisingly intense performance from its lead actor, and you will come to wonder how far it can go with its hard-boiled hero.

The first act of the movie is a classic example of a former criminal drawn back to his old way of life. As working as a car mechanic, Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughan) has tried to make an honest living for himself and his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) while putting his past criminal career behind his back, but, unfortunately, things do not go well for him on one day. After being fired from his current job, he comes to learn of his wife’s recent infidelity, and that leads to an awkward but serious conversation between them. Although being angry and frustrated, he instead focuses on what he should do for their life now, and that is how he comes to decide to go back to a man he once worked for.

The movie moves forward to 18 months later, and we see how things have been a lot better for Bradley and Lauren. Thanks to his criminal diligence which is exemplified well by a brief scene showing his latest drug delivery job, their life has been more comfortable and luxurious than before, and now they are eagerly waiting for the birth of their daughter, who will come into their world a few months later.

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As some of you have already expected, Bradley soon finds himself getting into a very serious trouble. When he is doing a big drug delivery job along with two henchmen working for a business associate of his boss, the police suddenly come into the scene. Though he could just get away from the scene, Bradley instead chooses to do what he thinks should be done, and he is accordingly arrested and then eventually incarcerated in a prison.

While not regretting anything and not cooperating with the police at all, Bradley is ready to endure several years in the prison, but then there comes another trouble. He is visited by a creepy guy who is played by Udo Kier, and this guy phlegmatically informs him that Lauren is kidnapped as instructed by the aforementioned criminal associate, who is quite angry about that botched drug delivery job and his resulting financial loss. He demands that Bradley must kill a certain prisoner incarcerated somewhere in a maximum-security facility located inside the prison, and he is going to harm both Lauren and her unborn daughter if Bradley does not follow his demand.

During the second act of the movie, we watch how Bradley attempts to go closer to his target step by step. First of all, he must be sent to that maximum-security facility in question, so he promptly commits a savage act of violence, and he is consequently transported to that maximum-security facility. Right from their first encounter, Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson), who is the supervisor of the facility, shows Bradley that he and his prison officers know no mercy or compassion, and the movie shifts itself onto horror mode as frequently emphasizing the harsh and inhuman environment inside the facility. At one point, Bradley is thrown into one hell of stinking cell, and that will definitely make you shiver if you are as sensitive about toilet as I am.

As Bradley has himself pushed further into the dark bottom of cruelty and savagery inside the facility during the last act, the movie goes all the way for extreme violence. While there are a number of gritty physical action scenes to strike us hard with their ruthlessness, the movie steadily maintains its dry, clinical tone at least, and you may be relieved to see that some of its most violent moments are succinctly shown from the distance.

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Director/writer S. Craig Zahler, who also composed the score with Jeff Herriott, is no stranger to such brutal mayhem like that at all. His previous film “Bone Tomahawk” (2015) was a merciless modern mix of Western and horror, and I still remember well its several striking moments of graphic violence, which surely made me wince a lot during my viewing. He is a skillful filmmaker who knows how to depict violence with considerable intensity and impact, and he shows here more of his talent along with confidence and control. Although its narrative pacing may be a bit too slow at first, the movie never lags in its plot progress, and its eventual arrival point feels inevitable instead of predictable.

Above all, the movie is firmly anchored by Vince Vaughn, who is quite effective in his against-the-type role. Besides looking convincing during numerous violent scenes in the movie, Vaughn’s understated performance ably conveys steely will and fiery ferocity behind his character’s taciturn façade, and he also handles well his character’s softer side shown during his few scenes with Jennifer Carpenter, who does a bit more than playing your typical woman-in-danger. In case of other notable performers in the film, Don Johnson is clearly having a fun with playing his hateful character, and I was particularly delighted to see Fred Melamed, a veteran actor who was quite hilarious in the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” (2009).

Like “Bone Tomahawk”, “Brawl in Cell Block 99” is not a pleasant experience at all, but it is a well-made genre piece to admire for its commendable technical aspects, and Vaughn’s strong performance makes it all the more worthwhile to watch. Yes, I like it when a movie brings out something new and unexpected from a performer familiar to us, and this is one of such good examples.

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