Brawl in Cell Block 99 Review: Vince Vaughn Punches and Smashes Through This B-Movie Delight

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It’s tough to make grindhouse films emotionally satisfying, but that’s exactly what director S. Craig Zahler does with Brawl in Cell Block 99. Don’t get me wrong, the story’s emotional hook is paper thin, but it’s there and it works nonetheless.

Bradley (Vince Vaughn) is a Christian, as noted by the hefty cross tattooed on the back of his head, but he’s also a monstrously large retired boxer. After losing his blue collar job and learning his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) is cheating on him the same day, the film establishes how hilariously strong he is by giving us a scene of Bradley dismantling a car with his bear hands. It’s quite the tone-setting sight to behold, and Brawl in Cell Block 99 would truly be nothing without its bombastic, over the top, dark as night tone.

But a year and a half later, he and his wife have worked things out, even have a baby on the way. The catch is that Bradley is now working as a runner for a drug lord. There’s an intense fire fight, and Bradley is thrown in prison, where a rival drug lord sends his number 2 to visit and inform him that they have his wife and will do unspeakable things to her unborn child if he doesn’t fight his way to the deepest depths of a super max prison to kill a supposed inmate the drug lord wants dead. It’s an insane plot right from the grindhouse, one that allows for a surplus of literal bone crunching.

But the film is almost two and a half hours long. No film with this plot should be that long, and Brawl most definitely lags in the middle, and even a bit through its setup. The third act is a gross, blood-spattering hoot though, and Vaughn proves that he might be worth a career renaissance into this breed of genre film.

There’s not really much to Brawl in Cell Block 99, besides an excess of celluloid, but that’s largely okay. The film is fun in all the ways it promises to be early on, and creates a “hero” you root for to succeed just a notch above the generic baseline. You won’t be better for having seen it, but there’s nothing wrong with turning your brain off and having a good time either. Just make sure that what you consider “a good time” to be includes bone crunching. I can’t emphasize the that enough. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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