As you may know by now I’m not a fan of giving out spoilers. But when a film is called Brawl in Cell Block 99 it kinda gives you an outline of an activity and a location that might be contained within. But I bet dollars to donuts you are not expecting what happens getting to that point.
Maybe you’ve seen Assault on Precinct 13 (2005) and think this is going to be a by-the-numbers action film. Maybe you’ seen the poster for this film which shows Vince Vaughn with a crucifix tattoo on the back of his head, and that reminds you of American History X (1998). Is this going to be a bad guy gone good following a big fight in prison where he evaluates his life?
Or maybe you’ve seen literally any other Vince Vaughn movie and think this might be a mildly amusing romp where he has to charm or fight his way out of prison. A la Get Hard (2015).
Well, you now owe me a box of donuts.
I can’t think of another character in any film I’ve seen to whom I could compare Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn). He’s definitely not Wes Mantooth, or Fred Claus, or any other nameless inoffensive cheeky loveable character he’s played before. You might say he’s a badass. You’re still wrong. A badass still gets caught up in the emotion of his motivation. He’ll give a speech about getting rid of the scum. Or justify what he’s doing in the name of vengeance so he might still seek forgiveness in the eyes of the audience.
“Oh, so he’s a lovable psychopath then?”
That’s three boxes of donuts you owe me. I like Krispy Kremes. Just the regular iced ones please. Not on consecutive days, please. My motalibism can’t handle that much sugar, and I can’t afford the nap time right now.
He’s just a guy, who makes it very clear that he doesn’t want to fight. He alludes that there might have been some fighting in his past. But even then he only gives a brief explanation in direct response to a specific question. Not one of these whiny little pussies that moans on about the one time he killed someone in the ring, and then there’s a grainy black and white flashback where even though it’s supposed to be his memory we’re inexplicably seeing it from a third person’s perspective.
He simply says “I don’t like the idea of beating on someone for no reason”. Or words to that effect.
“So he’s a zen-like fighter in control of his emotions?”
Ok, you’re half-right. So I owe you half a dollar. I’m still gonna come collect on those donuts though.
The premise is simple. So simple that the opening 10 minutes is the same as the concept for the concept album my buddy Jimmy Pineapple and me were going to write for our fake band Abacus Harley. It was going to be called “Before turning the gun on himself” and was about a man who lost his job, came home early to find his wife cheating, goes on a rampage, killing his family and then himself.
But you’ll remember I said that Bradley isn’t a pussy. Despite having a dumb name. When he finds his wife he has a calm sit down with her, tells her how they’re gonna work it out, which may involve moving drugs from one place to another.
Inevitably something eventually goes wrong with his new career path, which puts his family in danger. Now the rampage. If you can call it that. It’s very pointed and matter of fact.
What will keep you engaged with the film is the choices he makes throughout. There are certain things where the strength and will that he’s demonstrated would lead you to assume he’ll take the obvious course of action. Because he could. But he’s got a very clear defined sense of moral of sensible right and wrong. And despite the pitfalls, it all seems to work out in a way that he is happy with.
Twice early on in the film there are decent entries for a soundtrack. I’m a fan of disco/funk and really think it’s time we had a full on comeback. But this movie won’t be reigniting that trend. Apart from those brief moments, which are only present because he’s driving. With those exceptions there is no score for the majority of the film until we get closer to the eponymous Cell 99. It makes for really unnerving tension, which only adds to the feel of the film.
Something I meant to mention in my previous review of Thor: Ragnarok (2017) is that it only has one well-known “Immigrant Song”, which it plays twice, at key moments that exemplify the emotion tied in with the concurrent action. And I fucking loved that, as opposed to both the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) outings that use their ‘cool’ soundtracks constantly as a crutch in place of evoking the emotion successfully through film making.
Don’t even get me started on that over-rated piece of shit Baby Driver (2017), which as I have previously stated was a really expensive way of Edgar Wright getting his kids to not moan about his taste in music.
The lack of music is designed to make you not feel at ease. They don’t want you emoting with the character. And that’s all music is designed to do, stimulate some small part of your lizard brain to manipulate you. Make you move your body around, or miss someone you’ve lost. There are no tricks with Brawl in Cell Block 99. You will want to pay attention because it’s compelling.
I’ve literally only just now looked up what else the director has done. Turns out he’s responsible for Bone Tomahawk (2015). So if you’ve seen that, and your neck just disappeared into your chin just thinking about ‘that scene’… Yeah, you’re gonna find a fair amount of those moments here too. One of the main bad guys met a gruesome end when he was in the final season of “Banshee”. So far he’s this year’s top contender for the ‘Cinenarc Jared Leto Award of having a really shitty on-screen end’.
Or maybe it was the other guy. I get a little blurry just trying to remember it. It all gets a little hectic at the end.
This film is bleak and unsettling. But so fantastic. And brutal.
That’s the highest praise I can give for a film, that it’s satisfying. Entertaining films can be shit. And excellent films can be boring. But something that is satisfying will get me coming back again and again. I will be watching Brawl in Cell Block 99 again very soon.
Ever since I first saw him in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) I’ve considered Vince Vaughn to be background furniture. But he’s surprised me recently. His monologue on Saturday Night Live (1975-) a couple of years ago endeared me to him, even though the episode itself wasn’t hilarious. He came across like he does in a lot of his funnier films which suggested he might just genuinely be a cheeky lovable guy. And a last years Term Life (2016) was a decent transition in to the action world. It was a passable film in a time when action films have become a little passé.
But this film… This character… This performance…
Vince Vaughn can play stone compellingly.