Brawl in Cell Block 99: Movie Review

Director and screenwriter Craig S. Zahler’s love for (the right kind of) cinema is evident in every movie he’s making (his first one is Bone Tomahawk, 2015), and his works have nothing to envy to the movies from which he takes inspiration. Let’s say that I see him as an American Neil Marshall (The Descent, 2007; Doomsday, 2008). His 2017 film entitled Brawl in Cell Block 99 merges two cinematic genres as it is a dramatic thriller and at the same time a prison movie, as it takes place for the most part in multiple prisons. And it’s one of the the best ten prison movies of all time, if you ask me!

Here’s the plot: In the first five minutes of the film, Bradley (Vince Vaughn) loses his job and discovers that his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) is cheating on him. Bradley is a violent man but, he also loves her: so, first he punches his wife’s car (as in Street Fighter), then he talks to Lauren and together they decide to go on with their story and to have a son after losing one a few months earlier to a miscarriage. Ah, and he becomes a drug courier on behalf of Gil (Marc Blucas) to solve the financial issues of the family.

Clearly, you know right from the start that at some point Bradley will end up in prison, so I was constantly waiting for things to go wrong for him, and at a certain point they do. The movie is great in making everything developing with a remarkable slowness which, far from boring, creates a tension that grows spasmodically. The slowness is broken by explosions of violence that never feel gratuitous and serve to advance the plot in the protagonist’s horrific descent into Hell.

Don’t expect to see the usual action scenes of contemporary action cinema: when people shoot or fight each other in this film, Zahler barely moves his camera and lets the actors move and fight exactly like actual criminals may do in the real world. Nobody has superhuman strength, even though Bradley is two meters tall and is a former boxeur. All the movements are studied and choreographed to perfection, there are no quick cuts and editing tricks and, as far as I could see, there are no stunt doubles either.

Vince Vaughn impressed me. I only knew him from the horrid second season of True Detective (horrid not because of him), but I realized from the short documentary on the film’s DVD that… he’s a comedian, and mostly a comedy actor! I could have never guessed that! Bradley is a man who pursues his objectives relentlessly, he’s the perfect anti-hero with moral principles (which may go against the law) who also allows himself to make jokes in the least opportune moments and then suffers the consequences. In short, he’s a sort of Snake Plissken, of Napoleon Wilson, and I’m sure that John Carpenter would appreciate this movie a lot (and is it a coincidence that Zahler wanted Kurt Russell as the protagonist of Bone Tomahawk?).

Going back to the film, its three acts follow one another at the unstoppable pace of the protagonist. Interestingly enough, the extreme realism of the first two gives way to a last act, in the Red Leaf prison, which is almost fantasy with the walls that look like those of an evil lord’s dungeon (or those of the Spanish Inquisition a few centuries ago). In fact, perhaps I was more impressed by the extremely realistic medium security prison than by the maximum security prison with Fortress (1992)-style punishment systems!

To conclude, I recommend this film to anyone who loves cinema and in particular well done action cinema (no, not the movies by Michael Bay and Zack Snyder). Zahler works with a great team of collaborators and his style is instantly recognizable also thanks to Benji Bakshi’s desaturated cinematography. There is also an amazing soul and R&B soundtrack that is very reminiscent of 1970s blaxpoitation cinema! And what about two cult actors like Udo Kier and Don Johnson (the director watched a lot of Miami Vice in his youth)! In short, unmissable! Ciao!

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