S. Craig Zahler’s follow up to the hallucinatory Bone Tomahawk was always going to be something unique, but very little can prepare you for Brawl in Cell Block 99. By a wide margin the strangest thing at Venice so far, it exists in a heightened reality, where the blackest of humour mixes with recoil-inducing, brutal violence.
Vince Vaughn has already proved in True Detective that he can bring his imposing height to bear as a terrifying fighter. Beefed up and bald, Zahler puts him forward as a walking earthquake of a man who looks like he could trade blows with the Hulk and come out smiling. After bailing on a drug deal and getting arrested, Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas is sentenced to seven years, which is just the start of his troubles.
The man in charge of the deal was not happy about Bradley’s change of heart, and kidnaps his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), forcing Bradley to get himself transferred to a maximum security prison to carry out an assassination. Just as Bone Tomahawk added the fantastical to the Wild West with its cave-dwelling cannibals, Brawl invents a US prison that resembles a dungeon straight out of the Elder Scrolls games, run by a moustache-twirling cowboy warden (Don Johnson).
Though the threats made against Lauren leap into gratuitously nasty territory, the vengeance enacted by Bradley is all the more satisfying for it. Limbs being snapped in two is about as tame as any fight scene gets and Zahler does a fine line in “so savage it’s funny” executions.
Undoubtedly, Brawl will be too much for many, if not most, viewers, and even if the violence doesn’t put you off, the surrealness of it just might. Roll with it, though, and it’s a brilliant, skull-shaking thriller unlike anything else you’ll see.
CAST: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson
DIRECTOR: S. Craig Zahler
WRITER: S. Craig Zahler
SYNOPSIS: A former boxer turned drug-runner lands in a prison battleground after a deal gets deadly.