Brawl in Cell Block 99

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Brawl In Cell Block 99
"Brawl In Cell Block 99 is one of the best action films of the year."

In recent years there's been a trend in the thriller genre toward more and more elaborate plots, a notion that every such film needs a unique story, which too often means that believability and style are sacrificed. Brawl In Cell Block 99 takes us right back to basics, showing what the genre can do at its best. A simple story is carried by a powerhouse performance from Vince Vaughn and direction which keeps viewers on the edge of their seats from start to finish.

Vaughn plays Bradley, once a skilled boxer but now just an ordinary working class guy who we see losing his job in the very first scene. To make things worse, when he arrives home early, he discovers that his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) he been cheating on him. Writer/irector S Craig Zahler demonstrates his skills straight away with a gripping piece of character work. Bradley sends Lauren inside and we watch as he beats up and tears apart her car with his bear hands. Should she flee? Should she call the police? What happens next is not what you might expect, and it immediately raises questions about how we define and understand masculinity, setting up a source of existential tension that goes right to the film's core.

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Bradley is a man who doesn't want to be defined by his body any more than he wants to be defined by his past, but when he simply can't find legitimate work, he ends up running drugs. Lauren is going to have a baby and, like any parent, he wants to be able to give it a better life. Things go wrong, of course, and he ends up in prison, but it's what happens next that forms the meat of the story. Bradley has found himself on the wrong side of a powerful gangster and now he is forced to endure one brutal experience after another as he tries to get himself into the worst, most helish prison of all - the notorious Call Block 99 - to kill a man.

Zahler pulls no punches in his depiction of a prison system which, once one gets past the level at which relatives still visit and politicians still want to be seen to care, becomes little more than an opportunity for sadistic dehumanisation. There's a terrific turn from Don Johnson as a warden who wouldn't be out of place running a concentration camp, but he's not the worst thing Bradley will encounter on his strange journey into the animal side of himself - and, possibly, towards redemption.

Telling this story effectively relies on making the action scenes really visceral, and this is where the film excels. Zahler works closely with cinematographer Benji Bakshi to compose fights that are as visually striking as they are brutal, and the accompanying sound work will make even hardened fight fans wince. Needless to say, this isn't a film for the faint-hearted. Every bloody bruise, every crunched bone, every snapped neck is right there on the screen. Even the winners struggle to walk away. Vaughn has significant physical presence but we never lose sight of Bradley's vulnerability, and even though we know he'll be the victor in the early bouts, we never know what it might cost.

A taut, adrenaline-fuelled thriller that also demonstrates intelligence and surprising emotional depth, Brawl In Cell Block 99 is one of the best action films of the year, and shows that they still can make 'em like they used to.

Reviewed on: 20 Dec 2017
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A former boxer-turned-drug runner lands in a prison battleground after a deal gets deadly.


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