I’m not the biggest fan of Vince Vaughn. I find his film choices a little boring and his humor too frat boyish. It’s important for me to acknowledge this because my opinion of Vaughn initially made me disinterested in S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 (hereafter referred to as Brawl). Thankfully Vaughn is cast against-type as Bradley Thomas, a soft spoken, mildly religious family man who turns to violence to protect his wife and unborn daughter.
Brawl is first and foremost a crime thriller, with a touch of exploitation thrown in for good measure. Or rather it’s the former for the first half and the latter for the second half, a slightly jarring mismatch that produces an uneven two hours-plus film that doesn’t entirely seem to know what it is.
The first half I enjoyed. There’s a lengthy introduction to the character and his situation, which helps to set the scene and clarify Bradley’s motivations. In the first minutes, Bradley is fired from his job and finds out his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been cheating on him, prompting him to destroy her car with his bare hands. This scene makes it clear that Bradley has the capacity to do great harm, but that he’s not a particularly violent man.
These qualities serve him well when he takes a job as a drug runner for his friend Gill (Marc Blucas). A quick time jump advances the plot 18 months: Bradley and Lauren are pregnant, they’re in a nice house with three cars and he’s Gill’s #1 guy. Obviously, it’s time for shit to hit the fan. A deal involving Mexican smuggler Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito) immediately goes south, requiring Bradley to put down one of Eleazar’s goons before he’s packed off to medium security prison. There he receives a visit from a creepy cartel mouthpiece (Udo Kier) with an ultimatum: kill a prisoner in the adjacent max security prison or Lauren and the baby will be penciled in for a date with the hilariously named Abortionist.
At this point, Bradley and the screenplay correspondingly switch into exploitation territory and the violence that was previously restrained bursts loose. It feels odd to harp on this considering that’s what the film is, but the disconnect between the mostly dramatic first half and the over the top ridiculous second half makes Brawl feel like two separate films. Maximum security resembles nothing less than a Bond villain’s lair: the prison is made out of stone with IKEA lighting and labyrinthian corridors. The guards still have guns, but twisted Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson) enjoys outfitting prisoners with a battery-powered belt that targets the kidneys at the push of a button. The guards are decked out in HYDRA knock-off outfits and there are specialty cells with features like raw sewage or a floor of broken glass available at a moment’s notice.
I’m not suggesting that Brawl should be realistic. This is a film, after all, where a man can rip off a car hood with his bare hands and suffer no injuries. Aside from the change in tone from the first half to second, my issue is that the film is exceptionally poorly plotted. When Bradley is sentenced to medium security prison, there’s a scene set in a courtroom. He lasts less than 24 hours before he sends two guards to the hospital to secure the move to max, but there’s never a sentencing hearing, paperwork filed or even a moment when Bradley accepts that even if he pulls off his task, he is never getting out of prison.
More problematically, there’s no clear villain or escalation of violence. Films like The Raid or Dredd work because the fights, adversaries, and locations change to reflect a hierarchical progression towards the Big Bad. In Brawl, this doesn’t occur. Bradley breaks arms and throws guards into walls in medium security, then he breaks arms and throws prisoners to gain access to cell block 99 and then he breaks legs (and heads) when he finally arrives at his destination. The fight scenes are brutal and satisfying, but they’re nearly identical. It’s not even clear that the film has reached its climax because it simply feels like another fight – there’s no big payoff or protracted sequence where Bradley must dispatch dozens of men or survive insurmountably. Instead, it’s a brief fight with four (!) men.
Thankfully the brutality of the fights is worth the price of admission. The use of practical effects and the lack of music video editing is also particularly noteworthy for a film that loves bashing heads in (audiences who enjoy heads split like melons are in for a treat). Performance-wise, Vaughn is serviceable (his size and height fit the bill), while Kier and Johnson do well in roles that allow them to ham it up. Disappointingly Carpenter is given nothing to do other than sleep and, in a deeply unsatisfying turn, Brawl handles her closing “fuck yeah” moment so badly it’s almost shocking.
Unfortunately, Brawl is the first big miss of TIFF. It’s tonally uneven, excessively long, repetitive and fails to properly build momentum even when it leans into its gonzo exploitation characteristics despite decent acting and spectacular fight scenes.