In 2015 I was introduced to a film called “Bone Tomahawk”, which is a western from writer/director S. Craig Zahler. The movie was engrossing and delivered a western that would be good in any year. With that film my radar for filmmakers got tuned real quickly to Zahler. I couldn’t wait to see what he did next. That wait is over with Zahler’s new film “Brawl in Cell Block 99” and like his first film, he delivers again.
Bradley (don’t call him Brad) Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is trying to make life work. Bradley is a quiet giant who looks as calm as can be, but don’t let that fool you. After losing his job he comes home to find his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) sitting in her car and when he confronts her, she confesses to an affair. Bradley’s calm demeanor stays as he asks Lauren to go inside and once she is gone he proceeds to give her car a makeover. At that moment you realize there is more than meets the eyes with Bradley. Now with no job and tired of the cards life has dealt him, Bradley goes to work for a friend where he will run ‘packages” to and from places. Fast forward some time later and things are looking good for Bradley. He has a new house and him and Lauren are expecting a child. His employer has a big job for him, but this job doesn’t go well and when Bradley gets caught he is loyal and accepts the time he will have to do. Things though don’t always go how you expect as an unpaid debt will force Bradley to do whatever it takes to keep his family safe, not matter what the cost.
“Brawl in Cell Block 99” gives you an expectation of what you are in for in the title, but in the beginning you only see flashes of what’s to come. Zahler, like in his first film let’s things build up to their boiling point and even though at times it is a slow boil, when things do start, they start with a loud crack. There is such a beauty to this film, a quite and violent beauty, which is all set in place by Zahler and like with “Bone”, Zahler finds the perfect lead. With Bone he put Kurt Russell in a world that he just slid into and with “Cell Block” he does the same with Vaughn. From beginning to end Vaughn commands your attention every second he is on the screen in ways that the 6’5” actor has had done.
Before as he was known for comedies most of his career Vaughn is mesmerizing as Bradley. While the rest of the cast is good, Vaughn is the center of it all and embodies the elegant blend of serene and beautiful brutality of the film perfectly. Things happen suddenly and unexpectedly which really helps deliver a more powerful impact. “Cell Block” is a perfect companion to Zahler’s first film, and is a must watch in my eyes. Films like this don’t seem to get made often enough and when they are, very few are told with such craftsmanship as this one.