I didn’t get to see nearly as much at Fantastic Fest this year as I’d like, so when my friends and fellow festival goers were highly recommending this film I had to really put it on my radar. With a name like Brawl in Cell Block 99 I certainly could assume it’d be a bit more brutal of a film and with Vince Vaughn in it I was a little unsure what to think, but I did really like S. Craig Zahler’s last (Bone Tomahawk) film too. So the big question is did I spend my limited time at Fantastic Fest correctly?
Let me tell you a little about the plot of this movie first because from the trailer it wasn’t quite what I was expecting at all. Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) is an ex-boxer and ex-alcoholic who is fired from his job as a tow-truck driver and then finds out that his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) was cheating on him too. Bradley is a man with a bit of a temper and a penchant for violence, but he takes this in stride and simply beats up her car then decides that they’ll give it another try as a couple and for a baby while he starts working for his coke dealer friend. While this would generally be a series of terrible decisions in most films, Bradley and his wife are actually happy with a nice house, car, a kid on the way, and a boss that respects Bradley. Everything is great. That is until his boss tries to hook them up with a Cartel contact and Bradley does something that, while noble, blows the deal and winds him in jail. I really don’t want to ruin too much more from here on out because it actually continually surprised me, but suffice to say prison won’t be easy for Bradley.
The cast is actually fairly small on this movie for being over 2 hours and having multiple locations, but they really use them all well. Vaughn as our lead is really terrific here and doesn’t fall into old tropes that some people have been tired of from him, myself included. He has a slight southern drawl, a sarcastic wit and charm that balances his generally good heart. And when things need to get physical he really owns that physicality and that brutality as he has a fair amount of fights to perform. The next main character is Don Johnson as Warren Tuggs who I can’t really reveal much about how he fits in without spoiling more. But I will say that while I mostly remember him from Nash Bridges he is very different here as a strong antagonist and such a force of personality here that I almost wish we got more of him. Next biggest characters really are Carptenter who is wonderful as his wife who isn’t just a your usual woman without her husband but actually gets to be really strong here. And lastly is Udo Kier as a wonderfully menacing henchman who just chews up the scenery. Really just some strong performances all around to be sure, and Vaughn especially leading the way.
The great performances didn’t surprise me all that much though knowing Zahler from Bone Tomahawk where they were brilliant. I was happy to see they lived up to it here, as did the narrative which was all vivid and enticing. Zahler both wrote and directed Brawl in Cell Block 99 and it feels both grounded in reality while also at times a surreal almost grindhouse version of reality. The characters and world definitely feel alive here and draw you in, which is great since the film moves at a really quick pace. While its over 2 hours I honestly felt like it couldn’t be more than 90 minutes with how quickly it goes, and the breakneck pace really doesn’t hurt it at all. With great dialogue and then fight scenes that are visceral and gory in ways that live up to his last film you will only take your eyes off the screen if you’re squeamish. Zahler really is quickly becoming one of my favorite new directors and this film only further solidifies that.
While I saw this a week before Blade Runner 2049 which is another 5/5 review, I am writing this after it and really had to think on whether this film also earned it. But after rethinking the film and writing this review I can’t think of any true complaint I had for Brawl in Cell Block 99 to discount it a half a point. It won’t be for everyone with its really visceral violence, but it may be my favorite thing I saw at Fantastic Fest and its a film I’m dying to see again. I also just want to say that I hope you can see it in theaters, and with a crowd as good as at Fantastic Fest because the reactions to the violence on screen made this experience even better.