In his directorial debut, S. Craig Zahler created a gripping, scary, and deeply violent western. Bone Tomahawk was imperfect to be sure, but was nonetheless a fun bit of western horror, blending together two genres that rarely mesh together. Yet, in spite of this rather unique path, Zahler directed it with great gusto and skill. In the years since, Bone Tomahawk has largely become known for a scene of absolute horrific violence. For those that have seen the film, the scene needs no introduction. For those that have not, some things are better left as a mystery. Recognizing that audiences really responded to this slow burn style that explodes into graphic midnight madness violence, Zahler followed it up with Brawl in Cell Block 99. Starring Vince Vaughn, the film tells the story of a man sent to prison for trafficking drugs. After his wife is kidnapped, he is told he must get himself transferred to a maximum security prison and kill a man in the notorious Cell Block 99. A dark corner of the world that, as Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson) says, Amnesty International would frown upon, it is within this prison that much of the film is set.
As time goes on after the release of Brawl in Cell Block 99, it is hard to not imagine the film gaining a reputation for its violence. One scene in cinematic history relating to violence that really sticks with me is in David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly. As two men arm wrestle, one of their arms snaps with the bones protruding. This, minus the arm wrestling, happens at least three times in Brawl in Cell Block 99 with limbs snapping like twigs under the weight of Bradley Thomas’s (Vince Vaughn) incredibly brawny exterior. Arms and legs are not a match for him. Another violent scene that has become infamous is one from American History X. In it, a skinhead curb stomps a black man. Fortunately, the viewer only has to hear the sound. In Brawl in Cell Block 99, three men have their heads crushed in with every gory detail shown and one even has their head repeatedly stomped on until it is decapitated. If this sounds like something you are into, then boy is Brawl in Cell Block 99 the film for you. For those that do not like seeing graphic violence, it is best to avoid this particular film.
Oddly enough, it is this violence that often holds back Brawl in Cell Block 99. It is graphic, yes, but the film is never quite disturbing. It is cartoonish, 1980s film violence akin to Cronenberg’s exploding heads in Scanners or body horror in any number of films. It is intended to creep out audiences and make them uncomfortable, but occurs far too often to have an impact. As a result, it instead plays as cheap attempts to gross out the audience without actually carrying much purpose or weight. The over-reliance on gore and horrific violence often robs the film of many of its more serious elements and turns it into playing as nothing more than a splatter flick. It is cheap entertainment for those that enjoy excessive gore. It is a mean-spirited film that derives great pleasure from this level of violence to the point that it would suffice as an admission of insanity by Zahler. However, for those who are not entertained by such violence, Brawl in Cell Block 99 rapidly loses its power and ceases to be entertaining, instead feeling repetitive and incredibly lazy by the tenth time Zahler returns to showing some poor sap have his arm broken or their skull crushed.
Recognizing this lack of depth and coming to realization that this two-hour long film will really drag given the lack of depth, Zahler sprinkles in some thematic consideration early on about a variety of topics. Losing his job, finding out his wife is cheating, opting to run drugs for a friend to replace his income, and then eventually going to the end of the Earth to save his wife and child, Brawl in Cell Block 99 demonstrates the lengths a man will go to in order to save his family. Willing to sacrifice himself so that they may live, Bradley Thomas often serves as a representation of the drive and selflessness than even the most hardened criminal can demonstrate. However, beyond this rather simplistic element, Zahler’s film does little it is not upfront about.
Decrying conditions in American prisons, lamenting about the harsh treatment for drug offenders compared to violent offenders, showing the harsh and brutal conditions of maximum security prison that violates global mandates regarding torture, the horrible food, and the overcrowding, there are few hot-button prison-related issues that the film leaves untouched. In displaying the horrors of the prison system, Zahler consistently questions why America is so behind other nations with its prison system with characters drawing multiple unfavorable comparisons to Austrian prisons. In order to avoid seeming unpatriotic, the film champions Bradley as a true American with two flags in his home, a willingness to fight off hostiles with guns, and a strong moral compass.
Using this characterization to openly display Zahler’s allegiances and assure audiences that these critiques come from a place of love and patriotism, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is never quite subtle about its arguments. That said, it does start an honest dialogue about a real issue, but never really provides enough depth to them beyond Zahler using characters as mouthpieces to espouse these beliefs or rather brief off-hand remarks. This makes the film feel like one that is quite divided. On one hand, Zahler half-heartedly tries to provide depth by decrying the state of prisons in America. On the other, it is a horrifyingly violent film that serves as light-hearted midnight madness fare. In the end, neither side gels given Zahler’s heavy-handed treatment of the former in order to focus on the latter. If actually given enough time to develop these themes, the film could have been quite the violent statement about the violence inherent in the system, but too often, the film seems to lose track of this messaging, leaving it dangling in the wind.
Furthermore, the film shares another troubling element with Bone Tomahawk: racism. In Bone Tomahawk, the Native American tribe hunting a group of white men in the old west are depicted as absolute savages. While Brawl in Cell Block 99 shows a few kind black prison guards, it equally disparages both Hispanics and Koreans. While the former can be somewhat excused as many films show competing gangs and, in this instance, the Hispanic gang was the one standing opposite Bradley. What cannot be excused is the inclusion of the Korean abortionist. Showing the man taking pleasure in and getting his hopes up about either aborting Bradley’s baby or, at the very least, cutting of its limbs, the film shows this Korean doctor to be a morally bankrupt man who is better suited for a spot in hell than on Earth. As the lone Asian character in the film, there is no counter to his inclusion and with the film consistently calling out the fact that he is an abortionist from Korea, it is hard to come away feeling as though Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not somewhat racist. With the implication that this doctor is seedy and of loose morals when first mentioned as an “abortionist from Korea”, the film plays on first world beliefs that foreigners are inherently untrustworthy with shady medical practices occurring the world over. While Zahler himself may not be racist, the fact that Bone Tomahawk included negative depictions of minorities as well makes it a lot easier to come away believing that Brawl in Cell Block 99’s racism may not be a one-off occurrence in his filmography.
Where the film really displays Zahler’s directorial ability, however, is in its action sequences. As a former boxer, Bradley Thomas’s power is always front-and-center with brilliant fight choreography and strong camera work. Circling the fights and capturing every gory detail, the medium-long shots used by the film in these fights allows the audience to really appreciate the choreography while simultaneously feeling the intimacy and intensity of the fight. Similarly, there is a shootout early in this film that is equally impressive and possesses a similar quality to a video game such as Grand Theft Auto. Heavily armed and fighting off the cops, this shootout is excellently staged by Zahler, including how Bradley Thomas is worked into the scene. Revealing much about his character, his recognition of what is right and wrong, and simply being an incredibly badass moment for the character, the scene serves a growing point for the character that also serves to thrill and entertain. Refusing to rush through the scene and instead forcing Bradley to work his way to the scene of gunfight, this early shootout is a really standout for a film that knows how to show action in a way that gives the audience the layout of the set pieces, the scope of it, and all of the right thrills in watching it unfold.
No matter the flaws inherent with Brawl in Cell Block 99, the film serves as a chance for Vince Vaughn to finally receive a chance to flex his dramatic muscle. In recent years, he has had some bad luck during his attempts to reform into a dramatic actor. His turn in the second season of True Detective came in a far move divisive season of the show which hindered the appreciation of his performance. Last year, his turn in Mel Gibson‘s Hacksaw Ridge afforded him another opportunity to play a dramatic character, but with a scene in which Andrew Garfield drags Vaughn around on a battlefield as Vaughn guns down the enemy, many viewers quickly saw the role as yet another semi-comedic appearance for Vaughn. With Brawl in Cell Block 99, however, Vaughn is allowed to play the central role of Bradley Thomas entirely straight. Cold, reserved, and calculating, his calm brutality and neutral exterior give this film a really sharp edge to it that manages to make it one that really sticks with you. Numb to his experiences in life and exhibiting a disconnected demeanor is something Vaughn excels at as he plays this man who is dead on the inside and his cold, brutal exterior reflects that perfectly. For a man so capable of playing upfront, funny, and charismatic characters, this role allows him to play this more reserved man who retains much of Vaughn’s natural charisma, but in a more measured and natural amount. He is personable and likable, but carries himself so intensely that he quickly commands the attention of those around him.
A deeply flawed work from S. Craig Zahler, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a disappointing follow-up to Bone Tomahawk. At times, the film can be a thrilling work with a masterful turn from Vaughn. Slowly building anticipation and tension for its first half, the film seems to hint at becoming a potentially great piece of genre filmmaking. However, Zahler lazily indulges in numbing violence that, after a while, just loses its impact and ability to shock. In essence, it builds up to very little with a pay-off that is off-putting and tiresome. As such, without much thematic depth to hang onto, Brawl in Cell Block 99 crumbles around Vaughn’s towering performance, relying entirely upon him to keep the film standing upright.