365 Movies By Day Reviews of Movies I Watch that I Feel Like Writing About


Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

I absolutely LOVE a good prison movie. Just like I enjoy films set on trains, edgier (i.e. PG13 or greater) sports movies, alien movies, shipwreck movies, or survival movies set in the jungle, there is something about a good prison movie that perks my intrigue, keeps me interested, and has me thinking about it long after it's over. The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Hurricane, Rescue Dawn, Escape from Alcatraz, Lock Up, Murder in the First, Midnight Express, Brokedown Palace, Dead Man Walking, The Longest Yard, Felon, Law Abiding Citizen, Death Race...the list goes on and on. So what could a prison movie offer that we haven't seen before on the silver screen or television dramas like Prison Break or Oz or on television documentary shows like Lockup or Locked Up Abroad? There is no shortage of options when it comes to getting your prison fix. But there definitely something that you haven't seen before in S. Craig Zahler's (Bone Tomahawk) Brawl in Cell Block 99. Could it be that it's the most brutal prison movie ever made? You could argue that it is. It certainly could be the goriest. If you haven't seen the horror-western Bone Tomahawk yet, prepare yourself. I had heard about it but still wasn't ready for what I saw. I hated it. But I am going to go back and watch it again. And the reason for that is because of how much I really, really enjoyed Brawl in Cell Block 99.

Back in the day, before he was killing it with comedies such as Dodgeball - A True Underdog Story, Old School, Wedding Crashers, The Internship, Delivery Man and others, Vince Vaughn was trying his hand at dramas and thrillers where, I thought, he was mildly successful. He was great in Swingers and The Cell and I actually really liked Domestic Disturbance (though I don't think I would like watching it at age 41 as much as I did age 25). He got back to showing his dramatic side with 2016's Hacksaw Ridge as well as season 2 of HBO's True Detective. Long story short is Vaughn is a bad-ass. He can do comedy, drama, and thriller. If you can cross genres as successfully and as frequently as he does, in my book, you are a good actor.

I would never have known about this movie had I not been listening to my favorite movie podcast The Film Vault. Each week the hosts, Anderson and Bryan, start their episode by confessing to the flicks they watched over the course of the previous week. Very, very often they bring up films that I would never have known even existed, let alone watched. Both of them (but particularly Anderson) hit on so many finds that I literally write down each movie that they recommend so that I can look them up later and make my own decision if I want to watch it or not. Both of them raved about the wild and crazy Green Room (a movie I enjoyed and may or may not review). When Anderson mentioned Brawl in Cell Block 99, I was immediately intrigued, both because he recommended it and because of the title. I immediately added it to my queue without even researching it. So when a guy that kind of looked like Vaughn showed up in the first scene, I remember commenting out loud how much this character looked like him. It took an additional five minutes of me watching this film before I finally relented and looked the film up on Rotten Tomatoes. And sure enough, the man who looked like Vaughn was, in fact, Vaughn. So then I began wondering why I hadn't heard about this movie before. Bone Tomahawk had this huge cult following. This follow up already had the name recognition of Zahler, meaning it should have been more well-known, and it actually outscored Bone Tomahawk 92% to 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.

The movie revolves around antihero Bradley Thomas (Vaughn), a skinhead drug dealer who had been on the straight and narrow. But when Thomas is laid off from his job as an auto repairman/tow truck driver, he becomes desperate to make a quick buck. He returns to being a drug runner, but not before he dismantles a car with his bare hands after learning that Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter - Quarantine, Showtime's Dexter) had been cheating on him. I'm not sure the importance of this other than to see that he has a maniacal side of him. We see how strong Bradley is and we also see that sometimes he cannot harness his anger. He forgives his wife and then learns that she is expecting the couple's first child. Again, I'm not sure the importance of this other than to give Bradley something to fight for and do anything for when he is in prison and forced to make difficult decisions.

Bradley finds himself in the slammer after his boss Gil (Marc Blucas - Pleasantville, The Alamo) makes a deal with a cartel head. The job goes bad and Bradley could have cleared himself from the situation, but his conscience got the better of him and he ended up killing two of the cartel head's men when they start shooting at police. He heads to a medium security prison to serve his team. We are introduced to a pretty dire situation, but it's not treacherous. It's just that we feel Bradley's sense of dismay when he gets hassled by the security guard on his block and then steps into that 8 x 10 cell for the first time. It's not like Bradley is happy about his situation, but it's his plan to keep his nose clean and serve his time. But this isn't in the cards for Bradley. While he's serving his debt to society, he hasn't even begun the retribution process with Gil for the killing of his men. Lauren has been kidnapped and she and their unborn child are in danger unless Gil does what he is told. He is told he must force a transfer to Redleaf Maximum Security Prison and then, once there, into the notorious cell block 99 where he must assassinate a specific inmate who Gil needs to be killed. If he does this, his debt will be paid off. If he does not, the fetus will be amputated upon by an abortionist. The one rule about cell block 99 is that there are no rules. It is run by Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson - Tin Cup, Cold in July) who does what he wants when he wants. Its inmates are the worst of the worst. There is no hope that the men in cell block 99 will ever get out. And Bradley knows it. He also knows he has no choice.

From this point forward, it just becomes an insane race to the finish. It's almost like Apocolypse Now meets mother! meets Lock Up. The action is relentless and, ironically, what keeps it believable to me is one question. Do we really know what happens behind closed doors in some of these maximum security prisons? We hear about inmate mistreatment, but we also know that in order to get into this position, the inmate must be a pretty awful human being. It's one of those things that we truly don't want to think about other than to be grateful that we are not in any sort of situation like that. Bradley plays this part cool. He never gets too high or too low. He's tasked-based. A situation arises, Bradley thinks about it, and then he handles it. The movie does get past the point of control and really does get insane. But in a good way. I'm not sure I felt the same about Bone Tomahawk...but again I'm willing to watch it again. Vaughn holds his own in this dramatic role. Johnson and the other actors were serviceable in what they were asked to do. Overall, it's a cool ride that certainly will be too intense and violent for some. If you aren't bothered by brutality in your films and go into this knowing to expect the unexpected, I think you'll be rewarded. But again, this movie is not for everyone. Heck, it's not even for most people. But I liked it a lot.

Plot 8.5/10
Character Development 7/10
Character Chemistry 7/10
Acting 7.5/10
Screenplay 7.5/10
Directing 8/10
Cinematography 8/10
Sound 6.5/10
Hook and Reel 8/10
Universal Relevance 8/10

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