Released: 20th October 2017
Directed By: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Vince Vaughn
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Having made one hell of a debut with last year’s startling Bone Tomahawk, S. Craig Zahler goes for the broader b-movie jugular with this sophomore effort, taking an impressively out-of-his-comfort-zone Vince Vaughn along for the ride. Utilising the same bag of genre-spanning tricks that made his stab at the Western such a draw, the deceptively goofy-sounding Brawl in Cell Block 99 wastes none of its time in affirming itself as not only one of the more exploitation efforts of the year, but a reminder of what made Zahler such an exciting new voice to begin with.
A shaven-headed Vaughn plays the brutal and down-on-his-luck Bradley, newly laid off from his blue-collar job and forced into playing courier to a drug-dealing friend in order to support his expectant wife. A moment of unnecessary heroism during a deal gone bad, however, swiftly lands the righteous Bradley in prison, where those he’s crossed soon issue him an ultimatum – to have himself transferred to a higher security facility in order to execute one of their enemies, with the life of his unborn child hanging in the balance.
In much the same way that Zahler drew a previously unthought of performance from Matthew Fox in Bone Tomahawk, the same is very much true here of his collaboration with Vaughn as well. The once-a-Swingers actor here delves into artistic depths previously inconceivable of the star of such creatively dismal projects as Delivery Man and Couples Retreat, delivering a towering turn that effortlessly serves both the gritty and exploitation playgrounds in which his director seeks to hit the swings. It’s a fierce and intense performance, reliant on an internalised rage and an outward sense of self-loathing that will absolutely redefine how you see Vaughn going forward, and that it’s at the hands of a second-time director – even one as staggeringly full of potential as Zahler – is nothing short of astonishing.
Reuniting with Tomahawk cinematographer Benji Bakshi, Zahler’s film revels in extravagant visuals that you can’t help but admire. The institutional meets the gothic, and with Bakshi in play, the results are gloriously full-on. Pack in some sharp scripting (also Zahler’s work) and a solid supporting cast that even manages include a gleefully mincing Don Johnson, and Cell Block 99 quickly proves a destination you absolutely should not miss. Go for the latest effort from the director of one of last year’s best. Stay for the career-redefining performance by the star of Dodgeball, and, while you’re there, take in the sights and revel in an aesthetic that’s like nothing else you’ll find short of fusing Lock Up with Breakdown.