A few years ago I fancied watching this western starring Kurt Russell. Being a huge KR fan, I wanted to watch it anyway, but after reading about it, it sounded pretty good. The story of a man, whose wife is taken by a savage tribe in the American frontier, joins up with the sheriff; Kurt Russell, and Matthew Fox (from LOST) to find her. What I got was an actually really enjoyable film that suddenly turned dark and intense, as well as having one of the worst on screen deaths I have ever seen.
That movie was “Bone Tomahawk”, and as an added treat, I say that it was 4 Robots out of 5 (little additional review thrown in here).
Now, the point I am getting to, is that Bone Tomahawk was the first film directed by S. Craig Zahler, so when I heard he had done another film (in 2017), I was eager to check it out. This film is titled “Brawl in Cell Block 99” and stars Vince Vaughn (now taking on very serious roles following his performance in the second season of True Detective), as well as Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter’s sisters… sorry Jenn, you will never lose, although I said the same thing about Brian Cranston, as he was always referred to as the Dad in Malcolm in the Middle, and look at him now).
I can’t be arsed to write “Brawl in Cell Block 99” every bloody time, so I am just going to call it 99 from now on. Okay?!
So, 99 follows the story of an ex-drug mule, Bradley (Vince Vaughn) , who has previous quit the game and tried to start fresh as an upstanding citizen, however, he is laid-off from his job as a mechanic and after going home and seeing how miserable him and his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) lives are (alcoholism, cheating, lost unborn babies, abuse, and living in a crap place), he decides to go back to work with his former associate.
The film then jumps forward and his missus is pregnant and they are now living in a nice house and have a lot of money coming in (guess drugs do pay), however, after one job goes wrong, Bradley gets sent to a minimal security prison. After his first day, he is visited by a strange man who works for the drug dealer that Bradley failed the exchange for, who says that they have kidnapped his wife and will give her a force abortion (savage) if he does not kill a man… BUT the man is in a completely different prison; a maximum security one. Which means that he needs to cause enough trouble to get sent there. And he does just that, resulting in some bone braking fighting (literally) complete with gore and horrific noises.
Even when he gets sent to the other prison (which must up the amount of time he needs to serve), it turns out the man is in Cell Block 99, which is where the worst of the worst are kept, and the sadistic warden treats them terribly (broken glass on the cell floors, a hole for a toilet, beatings, no sunlight… its all just dreadful).
I can’t really go into the last act of the film (as it takes over half of the film for him to actually get to cell block 99) as it would spoil what little plot there is.
Other than this we get the occasional scene of his wife, before she is taken, and during her ordeal.
Spoiler! Thankfully the baby is unharmed. In case you were worrying.
So that is basically the film and it is actually quite difficult to talk about anything else, as other than the gory violence, there is not much else to this film. It is not to say that 99 is a bad film, I did quite enjoy it (but not as much as I did Bone Tomahawk).
Violence wise, the film is savagely brutal. One scene when he knocks a man onto his front, puts his foot on the back of his head and scraps his face across the concrete floor, before flipping him over and showing us his face, is horrific. Another death has him stamping on the back of someone’s neck until the head comes off.
Some of it looks comical, in a similar fashion to Kill Bill (and I’ll come back to this point in a minute) which is contrasting to the serious tone of the movie. It works well for the movie, but unlike in Bone Tomahawk where there is only really one major gory moment and it really stood out and hit hard, 99 is like this throughout. When he first has to get out of the minimal security prison in order to get transferred to the maximum one, the fighting does not hold back any of its punches.
It does feel like a Quentin Tarantino film. Either it was written similar as a homage, or the creator was a massive fan of him, you can’t help but feel as if it is a little bit biting his style. Tarantino has a very unique way that he writes his films and 99 feels like it desperately wants to held in the same regard. Having said that, there are few films that follow this Tarantino style, and given that he makes so few films, it is nice to have a little taste of Tarantino every now and again, but was that really what the director wanted for this film? For us to think about someone else’s movie/s and to be reminded of the good times? I doubt it.
Performance wise, even though Vince Vaughn’s doesn’t really have much to work with, he makes the best of it. Bradley is not the deepest of characters, but his love for his wife and his unborn child, risking everything to get them free, is well portrayed and enjoyable to watch. Gone are Vaughn’s comical Owen Wilson days and he continues to expand his acting career further and further into more serious roles.
Overall, 99 was quite a good film for what it was. It was surprisingly long (clocking in at just over 2 hours) but it never dragged and felt boring. There was enough going on at all times to keep up hooked and interested enough to find out what is next.
While it does bite a lot of style from other films, it does manage to give itself its own identity. It is violent, gory, brutal, and, at times, quite comical.
While it is not as good as the directors previous film; Bone Tomahawk, and probably doesn’t have much rewatch value due to its minimal plot, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a good enough one time viewing that afterwards will have you say “yeah that was okay” and makes you feel that maybe you didn’t just waste your Friday night.