Brawl in Cell Block 99: Boneheaded, by David Bax
Though its charmingly direct-to-DVD style title may imply a cheapo schlockfest, S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 at first appears to be a patient, deliberate movie (but worry not for it does deliver on the B-movie action and gore once the rubber hits the road). Zahler’s approximation of directorial poise may, for a time, actually trick you into thinking you’re watching a movie made by a mature adult for other mature adults. As its interminable run time grinds on, though, it becomes clearer and clearer that such affectations are a thin cover for an insultingly superficial and poorly thought out work of self-indulgence.
Vince Vaughn stars as Bradley Thomas, a down on his luck husband and father-to-be who takes a job as a delivery man for a drug dealer (Marc Blucas). When a job goes wrong and he goes to prison, he finds himself in a new, more dire predicament. His former boss’s associate (Dion Mucciacito) has kidnapped his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) and plans to hold her until Bradley kills a fellow inmate. Despite his considerable height, Vaughn is miscast as a heavy, especially one with a Southern accent. Luckily for him, Brawl has a conspicuously small cast for a prison movie; there never seem to be any more inmates or guards present than Bradley can beat the stuffing out of at one time.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) is trying to say here. Perhaps he’s examining a Zen approach to anger management. Bradley clearly has an outsized temper but he always seems to exhibit enough control to direct his eruptions toward the most efficient place with the least collateral damage. Early on, when he finds out his wife has been cheating on him, he takes it out on her car instead of her. What a prince! Meanwhile, Vaughn comes across less as a man barely keeping himself together and more as an actor lurching through his blocking.
Then again, maybe Brawl is meant to be a look at the inhumanity of the prison system. The guards act like members of the military skirting the Geneva code in order to tamp down a hostile enemy force and the conditions, from broken plumbing to shards of glass on the floor, are downright disgusting. At least we get some fun performances out of it, though. Don Johnson plays a nasty motherfucker of a prison warden who chews cigarillos to keep himself from chewing the scenery. And Fred Melamed (A Serious Man) shows up for one scene as history’s most supercilious correctional officer.
The real reason for all the grime and gristle of the prison scenes is for Zahler to indulge his horror movie impulses. Were this a more mainstream movie, these sets could be repurposed as a dungeon maze at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. And the pacing of the fight scenes, slow and forceful as an oil derrick, is more suited to Michael Myers than to your standard action flick.
All of these horrors and adversaries are just parts of the parade of punishments Zahler visits upon Bradley for the sin of trying to be a good person. And if that whiny, no-good-deed-goes-unpunished brand of nihilism sounds a little juvenile to you then congratulations. You’ve cracked the code. Despite all of its pretensions, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is ultimately just as brainless as its title.