Movie Review : Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
There is something very Snakes on a Plane-y to a movie title like Brawl in Cell Block 99. I sure had oddly specific expectations for it. Something along the lines of Slayer's immortal video for their song Repentless, but lasting for two hours instead of four minutes. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is alluringly named, but it doesn't really really deliver what its title promises. I mean, it features a shitload of violence and fatalism like self-respecting noir would, but it's eerily light on the brawling part. It's not necessarily a bad movie either, just somewhat of a curve ball?
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is the story of Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn), a garage employee turned drug runner during an economic downturn, who gets locked up for 7 years when a deal goes awry. Thomas is threatened from inside the prison walls and contracted to kill an inmate that isn't even housed in the same prison as him, otherwise he's going to have the limbs of his unborn baby mailed to him one-by-one. So, Bradley does what he needs to do for his child to survive: he picks fight over fight until he's brought to the mythical Cell Block 99 in order to duke it out with that convict he needs to assassinate.
So, there's not much of a brawl to Brawl in Cell Block 99. There are short and extreme bursts of violence, but otherwise prison authorities exert a pretty tight control on what's going on inside the walls of their institution. But the charm of Brawl in Cell Block 99 lies in how these brusts of violence are depicted. There's something very exploitation-ish abut it.
Whether Bradley is someone's face across the concrete with his foot or destroying a car with his bare hands like in Street Fighter 2 *, there's a blissful lack of concern for realism by writer and director S. Craig Zahler. He doesn't give a fuck what his movie will end up looking like, for as long as the violence is guts-churning and spectacular. There's not enough of that sort of commitment in today's cinema. Sometimes, violence and realism get in the way of each other, but not in this movie. Oh no, sir. There's not an ounce of realism here and it serves Brawl in Cell Block 99 quite well.
That said Brawl in Cell Block 99 doesn't have the strongest screenplay. It's obviously inspired by classic noir and if you've watched a couple movies in this genre, I have no doubt you'll figure out how it ends about halfway into it. It gets a little misery porn-ish too at some point, despite the silliness of the situation. But once again, I don't think S. Craig Zahler gave a fuck. I can't tell you how liberating that clarity of purpose is.
I wouldn't call Brawl in Cell Block 99 a style over substance movie, but narrative development clearly takes backseat to violent confrontations. Call it a violence over substance movie, I guess? Taken out out of narrative context, Brawl in Cell Block 99 offers countless memorable movie moments that stand on their own: Vince Vaughn going Street Fighter 2 on his girlfriend's car, the elaborate shootout scene that lands his character in prison, the drag-across-the-concrete scene, the pain belt, etc. These will stay with you long after your viewing of Brawl in Cell Block 99 and will end up being more important than the movie itself.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not a movie to be conventionally enjoyed. It doesn't have a visceral narrative you can relate to (unless you've been a prison agitator) or even a character to root for. It doesn't amount to more than the sum of its parts, but it does have memorable parts that will haunt you for a long time after you're done watching it. I've enjoyed it myself. It didn't live up to the lofty expectations the raving reviews on the internet created for me, but it offered many scenes that will be difficult to forget. Honestly, it's worth watching just to see Vince Vaughn punch out a car and calmly walking back inside how house to have a discussion with Jennifer Carpenter.
* Yes, it happens and it's one of the greatest things I've ever seen in a movie.