Like a trapeze artist walking across a mile of barbed wire, “Brawl in Cell Block 99” masterfully balances between violence and beauty. It’s a feast of brutality and emotion, as gasp-inducing as it is awe-inspiring. A bold feat of imagination and despair from director/writer S. Craig Zahler, who, if he continues with pictures of this quality, will become one of Hollywood’s most resonant, violent voices.
Vince Vaughn plays Bradley Thomas, a stoic slab of muscle. He doesn’t start fights but he is willing to finish them, a man who abides by his own code, only breaking it when there are limbs that need to be broken. Bradley loses his job and has to resort to running drugs, which lands him in jail. While there, his wife Lauren (played by Jennifer Carpenter), is kidnapped by an opposing drug faction. To keep her and their unborn child alive, they force Bradley to commit terrible acts of violence.
It’s not so much a character study, as we don’t find ourselves wondering where Bradley came from, how he ended up so massive in size but so reserved in nature. Nor is “Brawl in Cell Block 99” an argument against the atrocities of the prison or legal systems, or the inherent harm of the war on drugs. The movie is just a carnal rush of cinematic hedonism, constantly jabbing at our reflexes to get a “oh shit!” out of us.
It’s a massive undertaking for Vince Vaughn, someone who has used his height in previous movies like “Swingers” or “Wedding Crashers” than as an actual, adversarial tool. But Vaughn is literally transformative here, his head is shaved clean, no more hair for his former charming pacifist to hide under. There are diversions and misdirections in this film, but everything eventually leads back to the same place where we started: Vince Vaughn kicking some fucking ass.