Brawl in Cell Block 99 Review

“…a smidge above ‘B-movie’.”

Ever since season two of True Detective I have been jonesing for another serious Vince Vaughn role. We got a taste in Hacksaw Ridge, but that was more of a caricature than an earnest attempt in my opinion. So when I first heard about Brawl in Cell Block 99 I was instantly sold. Vince Vaughn, prison, serious role, and made by the same guy who did Bone Tomahawk? How could this movie lose? Well I don’t want to say that it lost, but to say that it won would be a misrepresentation of my opinion. It’s hard for me to even give a plot synopsis for this movie, but I’ll talk about this later. To sum it up: Vince Vaughn is a guy who goes to prison. Then, as the title suggests, there is some fighting. That’s all I knew going into the movie, and that was enough for me.

So why is it hard for me to give a synopsis for Brawl in Cell Block 99? Well simply because I found the story of the film to be kind of sporadic. It seemed like every twenty minutes a new movie was starting, which really drove a wedge between me and the film. How can I get attached to this character and get engrossed int his story if everything keeps changing so often? It’s like the movie wants to tell this giant story, but instead it opts for giving you the abridged version. I don’t really want to go into specifics here, because it would spoil the movie, but to sum things up I found the storytelling to be unfocussed. Well that’s fine because the movie is about fighting, right? Well, yes and no. There is fighting in Brawl in Cell Block 99, and it is great (we’ll get to that later), but I found the movie to not focus on that aspect too much. And this is part of a larger problem for me: completely different expectations. I expected Brawl in Cell Block 99 to be a movie about a dude who has to get tough to make it on the inside, but what I got was completely different. This is nobodies fault but my own, but it’s still something that bothered me. Now I do try to keep an open mind when watching movies, but the way the story in Brawl in Cell Block 99 decided to go was a little weird for my tastes. It’s like it wanted to be a gritty look at prison life, but at the same time opted to go with a b-story from a shitty action movie. This weird mismatch in tone kept throwing me off, and it stopped me from becoming really immersed in this movie. And this continued throughout the rest of the film as well; instead of picking a side, Brawl in Cell Block 99 decided to bounce back-and-fourth between serious and campy. And this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just worked against the film most of the time.

Building off of this ‘campy’ tone that I mentioned, the writer/director of this film, S. Craig. Zahler, is starting to give me some serious John Carpenter vibes. Now this isn’t saying anything about the quality of either ones work, it more so speaks to the feel of their films. Brawl in Cell Block 99 had a very ‘grindhouse’, ‘exploitation’ feel that Carpenter was pretty much the master of. Everything from the story, to the performances, to even the soundtrack all oozed this sense of being from a different time. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for the vehicles and technology, Brawl in Cell Block 99 could have easily fit in with any other 70’s or 80’s or really any time-period’s action films. And going back to the music for a second, another comparison I have to draw between Zahler and Carpenter is the fact that both of them have a hand in creating the music for their films. I’m not sure if Zahler is trying to go for a Carpenter thing with his career, but if he keeps this up we might see him evolve into a legend like Carpenter over the years.

So what worked in Brawl in Cell Block 99? Well one thing I was looking forward to this move for was Vince Vaughn’s performance, so let’s start with that. Vince Vaughn was far from amazing in this film, but I don’t think that was his fault. I feel that the writing issues that I already discussed kind of held him back from releasing his full potential. His performance was serviceable, but it wasn’t good enough for me to recommend the film based on ‘Vince Vaughn’s performance’ alone. That being said he played the part of ‘hulking madman’ very well, and that’s exactly what the film called for; so all is well. As for everyone else in Brawl in Cell Block 99, what can I say? I would classify all other performances, much like everything else in the film, as a smidge above ‘B-movie’. There really isn’t much else to say about them; much like Vaughn’s performance they worked with what the movie was going for, but other than that they were pretty forgettable. But one thing that wasn’t forgettable in Brawl in Cell Block 99 was the violence. Holy. Shit. This fucking movie is so unnecessarily violent, but that is in no way a bad thing. The violence is gratuitous to say the least, but that is what will make this movie stand out when looking back to it. The fight scenes were fucking brutal. I will admit that a few times I found them to be ‘pulling the punches’ a little too much, but that is to be expected when you have an actor doing the stunts instead of a stuntman. But apart from those few times everything was amazing. These fight scenes are so over the top that it’s like you’re watching a cheesy action movie, but the best part is the rest of the movie brings a darker tone to them. So instead of being able to laugh at these antics like you would in an Arnold Schwarzenegger film for example, you end up cringing and recoiling in simulated pain. And the best part about these scenes is easily the gore. Brawl in Cell Block 99 not only doesn’t pull punches, but it goes above and beyond to make you want to throw up. I don’t even know if half of this shit was realistic, but I do know that it was cool as shit! Once again I don’t want to go into specifics, because you really have to experience these moments first-hand. Another minor gripe I have relating to the violence in the film was the distinct lack of blood. It was kind of strange to see something traumatic happen to a dude’s face and there be no blood, but in retrospect I think I understand why. It seems to me that Zahler wanted to capture the effects in this movie  in all of their glory, and in-turn he didn’t want to cover them with fake blood. This makes sense, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that most of them would have looked better (or worse) if you gave them a realistic amount of blood. As it stands these effects were great, but the addition of more blood probably would have taken them from ‘halloween store prop’ to ‘Oh my god, is that real?!’.

Overall Brawl in Cell Block 99 was an alright movie, but not exactly what I expected. Instead of a gritty look at the prison system, what I got was a weak action movie side-story that kind of took over the plot. Instead of wonderful performances by Vince Vaughn and co. what I got was passable performances by all, but none that stood out. What I didn’t expect, but I got in spades, was a shitload of gore and kick-ass fight scenes. So I guess that makes up for the other stuff.

I give Brawl in Cell Block 99 a B


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