Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Marc Blucas, Udo Kier, Don Johnson
Running time: 132mins
What’s the story: Drug runner Bradley Thomas is incarcerated following a bungled drug pick-up. Inside the big house, Bradley is told he needs to perform a specific job or bad things will happen to him and those he loves.
What’s the verdict: Gothic horror Western Bone Tomahawk is possibly the best underseen film of recent years. Hopefully, Brawl in Cell Block 99 will reach a wider audience because writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s prison movie is a hell of a one-two punch… followed by a knee to the nose… and heel to the throat.
We’re trying to say it makes an impression.
The plot is as B-movie simple as the title is B-movie attention grabbing. After being laid off, former boxer-cum-mechanic Bradley Thomas (a pumped-up Vaughn) starts running drugs for local dope lord Gill (Blucas) to support his pregnant wife Lauren (Carpenter).
When a deal with a new connection goes south in high-calibre fashion, Thomas finds himself in prison. But, his troubles are only just beginning as he discovers himself beholden to a powerful figure who wants him to dive head first into the cell block from Hell.
Despite locating his second movie in a different genre, we’re learning what to expect from a Zahler joint. Like Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is about a professional forced on a quest into a nightmare land of violence and danger.
Both films have imperilled women at their centre. Both feature outrageous brutality depicted with stark detachment (but will have viewers wincing and howling). Both pack efficient yet poetic dialogue actors love to deliver and audiences love to hear. Both run over two hours but are paced to feel no more than 90 minutes. Both begin with B.
Also beginning with B are blood and brains. Brawl in Cell Block 99 has plenty of both, in the script, direction and performances, and splattered across the screen. Zahler’s battleground is the human face, and what destruction it endures.
As with his debut movie, there is also a fair dash of existentialism to the mayhem. Beginning as a story of one man bending his code of honour to provide for his family, as the film descends into horror movie territory there is the suggestion Cell Block 99 is where Bradley will atone for his sins.
Knowing his plot and characters are compelling enough to carry the audience, Zahler shoots with elegant, distanced compositions and employs a score only when necessary to propel plot or emotion.
At the centre of all this is Vaughn’s formidable Bradley Thomas. Shaved head and with a serious cross tattoo on the back of his noggin, Thomas is a fantastic creation. Intelligent and lethal, with a nice line in dry wit, it is huge fun watching him move through the maelstrom deploying a particular set of skills.
A great cast of faces, including Udo Kier as a slimy go-between and Don Johnson as a sadistic prison warden, add to the B-movie vibe.
Zahler’s next movie is a police brutality thriller starring Vaughn and Mel Gibson. Currently it sports the title Dragged Across Concrete (something that happens to a character here). We’ll walk across hot coals to see it.