Every now and then you see a film that you just know will be a midnight movie staple ten years down the road. It’s pretty safe to assume that Brawl in Cell Block 99 will inevitably enter the proud pantheon of cult classics, and mayhap one day be considered a retroactive, decades-defining masterpiece a’la Blade Runner and The Big Lebowski.
Craig Zahler’s Cell Block 99 isn’t a horror film in the traditional sense, but it is gorier and more disturbing than 90 percent of the straight genre flicks that have come out in 2017. In a way, the movie feels sort of like a version of The Story of Ricky directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, or perhaps Takashi Miike’s take on the standard Death Wish vigilante action fantasy.
Vince Vaughn turns in quite possibly the best performance of his career as protagonist Bradley Thomas, a rather stoic individual who gets fired from his tow truck job and (in the same day) finds out his wife (played by Jennifer Carpenter of Dexter fame) is cheating on him. So naturally, he resolves the problem by playing the bonus stage from Street Fighter II on her car and having a long talk with her about their ailing marriage (and also, the dairy selections at the local grocer, for some reason.) Eventually, the two agree that it would be just peachy if he became a part-time drug trafficker. We flash forward a few months later and now the two are very wealthy and expecting a child.
Alas, the good times come to an abrupt end when Bradley gets caught up in a drug deal gone awry (which one character describes as “9/11 part two”) and it isn’t long before he’s staring down a seven-year stint in the slammer. Udo Kier ambles into jail one day to visit Bradley and tells him that if he doesn’t get transferred to another jail and kill this one inmate for him, he’s going to send his flunkies after his wife, abduct her and give her an involuntary abortion–with a promise to send him his unborn daughter’s severed legs as souvenirs.
That means Bradley’s got to cause a big stir at the medium security prison, so it’s only a matter of time before he’s snapping dudes’ arms in half and karate chopping guards four at a time. After some more misbehavior, he winds up getting shipped off to a maximum security prison overseen by Don Johnson, who likes to electroshock prisoners for fun and refer to the place as “a minimum freedom” facility. After beating up a couple of gangbangers in the exercise yard with a metal pole (apparently, they weren’t too happy with him saying “Don’t call me a foreigner. Last time I checked the flag wasn’t red, white and burrito”), Bradley finally gets exiled to the titular Cell Block 99, where he has to sleep on broken glass and poop in a hole in the floor. And what do you know, the guy who screwed over Bradley on the drug deal that landed him in the pokey to begin with has a couple of cronies waiting for him, and–without spoiling the fun–let’s just say heads will literally roll. And also, get curb stomped open like a rotten Jack O Lantern. And get grinded against concrete floors until their faces are physically polished down to the bone.
This is one of the grimmest and most nihilistic action movies to come down the pipes in quite some time, but that’s not to say it’s devoid of humor. Indeed, the movie has some outstanding lines (my personal favorite is when Bradley laments “I’m sick of getting the skim milk and hoping love brings us the cream, because it won’t”) and the whole ride is a hoot from start to finish. It’s an outstanding, over-the-top violence fest with tremendous pacing and a great ensemble cast. When the blood and guts start flying, it’s truly a sight to behold.
RLJE Films’ DVD drops Dec. 26. The DVD transfer looks very smooth. In terms of the audiovisuals, I’ve got nothing to complain about, but the lack of special features is a huge letdown. There’s no director commentary and no deleted scenes. Just two featurettes, one on the making of the film (which is only about 15 minutes long) and a 45-minute Q&A session from Beyond Fest.
It would’ve been nice to hear Vaughn and Zahler shoot the breeze about the movie’s production, and you just know there has to be some great alternate takes that were left on the cutting room floor. Despite the bare bones package, though, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is still a movie worth going out of your way to see. Regardless of the lack of extras, this is one of the year’s best movies–and if you missed it during its theatrical run, this DVD is likely to remain the best way to catch the film until it starts making the late night revival rounds a few years from now.
WICKED RATING: 10/10 (for the movie) 8/10 (for the DVD as a whole)
Director(s): S. Craig Zahler
Writer(s): S. Craig Zahler
Stars: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas
Release: December 26, 2017 (Home Video)
Studio/ Production Co: Assemble Media / Cinestate / IMG Films / XYZ Films / RLJE Films
Length: 132 minutes
Sub-Genre: Action / Thriller / Splatter / Vigilante / Crime / Prison / Whatever Genre You’d Call The Story of Ricky