One of the most brutally entertaining movies of last year despite its slow first half, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a grindhouse throwback starring Vince Vaughn, with deliberate pacing, a healthy amount of conflict, and lots of broken bones and smashed faces. Its simplicity, violence, and subject matter give Brawl the feel of a low-budget 70’s movie, while Vince Vaughn continues to build himself up as a serious lead actor. This movie will become a cult classic, and here’s why.
The most notable performance is Vince Vaughn as Bradley, a mild-mannered working man with a distaste for violence despite his skill at it. He’s stoic with a habit of hiding his emotions from other people, so his best moments happen in solitude. Vaughn brings a simple likability that helps us side with his character, he clearly understands that it doesn’t take much for the audience to root for a protagonist. His life simply has to be difficult. This movie, season 2 of True Detective, and Hacksaw Ridge are proving that Vaughn is a good dramatic actor, and he’s already on lots of people’s radars. He’s mostly known for being the same guy over and over again in comedy films, and for that god-awful remake of Psycho, so Vaughn’s performance in Brawl in Cell Block 99 is pleasantly surprising.
Excitingly, he finally got a serious lead role in a feature film as well. The character actors, especially Jennifer Carpenter and Don Johnson, sell their roles, too. Carpenter’s character is flawed, but she cares about the right things, and Don Johnson has fun as the most Grindhouse character in the film. He’s a prison warden who likes to smoke cigars while he uses violence to control people. We’ve seen it before, but it’s easy to appreciate the self-awareness he brought.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 has a very simple plot: an ex-boxer short on cash has to salvage his marriage and provide a future for his unborn daughter. This leads him to return to a criminal past, where a huge mistake puts everything he lives for at risk. The simplicity gives it a similar feel to Grindhouse movies like Rolling Thunder and Coffy. It’s really there to facilitate violence and otherwise stay out of the way, but it doesn’t feel like an interruption in the action.
The slow scenes act as support for the fast ones by ratcheting up the tension and making the characters sympathetic. It does the stuff that a plot needs to do. Bradley has to pummel his way through enemies that have the upper hand on him and the odds are never good. It’s suspenseful and there’s always some kind of conflict with well-established stakes, even if there’s a slow-burn pace for the first half of the movie. Brawl in Cell Block 99 manages to entertain because of solid writing and professional execution.
Violence is the biggest draw of Brawl in Cell Block 99, and don’t worry that it takes so long to reach. The really violent parts are placed to fully exploit how shocking they are, because they serve as clear payoff for scenes leading up to them.
The fist-fights are simple and extremely brutal. Bradley struggles to contain his rage and he works tirelessly to claw his way out of poverty for the first half of the movie, and it’s not until the final act that we finally see him pummel his problems head-on. When Bradley’s loved ones are at risk, he doesn’t hesitate to murder people with his bare hands. Because the violence is so brutal and matter-of-fact, and we spend so much time getting angry and desperate alongside the protagonist, it’s extremely cathartic to watch. He hurts bad guys who really deserve it.
Definitely give this movie a watch, especially if you have Amazon Prime Video. Seriously, you’ve already paid to see it through your subscription. I’m usually not a fan of such deliberate pacing in an action film, but Brawl in Cell Block 99 had me saying “AWW SHIT” more than any other film this year. This is a great movie to watch when you want something serious and a little artsy, or if if you just want gore and brutality. It’s also perfect to watch with friends, and Vince Vaughn’s performance makes it worthwhile.
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