BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 —–Badass has a new name: Vince Vaughan. He scores a knockout—or stompdown—in this red meat guy-movie, prison-as-hell subsection. The squeamish may as well wimp out after seeing the title, because it’s a one-way ticket to Pulpville that runs grim and grueling for a steady, seemingly quick 132 minutes. Destined for—and worthy of—cult status.
‘Bradley Thomas’, suddenly unemployed, his marriage teetering, outlook dim, goes back to his old riskier but profitable job as a drug courier. A major drop with some sketchy new players goes south, and Bradley takes a 7-year fall in a medium-security facility. Shortly, he is told that the money-men behind the failed delivery want their millions back, and have kidnapped his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter, looking believably frayed), threatening something extra-hideous unless Bradley complies. To do so, he has to raise enough havoc to get transferred to a maximum security unit. Once there, he must locate and kill a designated inmate. Things get dog mean, and the classic “man’s gotta do” situation gets new blood—plenty of it. Brace yourself.
Directed and written by stylist S. Craig Zahler, the 2017 sleeper (a cell sleeper?) gives Vaughan the best role he’s had in years. Wasted for some time in dull lowbrow comedy fillers, miscast as a co-star in the high-profile Hacksaw Ridge, the amiably edgy quipster finds his inner rage valve and bottom-feeder targets worthy of the steam. What makes the unflinchingly brutal tale compelling, beyond the literally captivating atmosphere (non-vacation variety), vivid genre characters and excitingly choreographed fight scenes is that Bradley has honor, is a stand-up guy, and you pull for him.
Kept in check so it doesn’t feel like simple cute scripting, the expected dead-pan sarcasm works well, and Zahler is creative enough that he doesn’t fall back on the overused gimmick of endless profanity to make his people seem ‘real’. Neat nasty turns from a casually vile Don Johnson (where’s he been?) and creepy Udo Kier help make it easy to get behind Vaughan’s desperate, righteous, pulverizing determination.
Very well reviewed, it saw limited release, lost among the noise machines of the years ‘meaningful’ action sagas– Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk and Star Wars:The Last Jedi. A real surprise, but be ready to flinch. With Marc Blucas, Geno Segers, Dion Mucciacito, Mustafa Shakir. Zahler also whipped up the effective soundtrack with Jeff Herriott.