"Brawl in Cell Block 99" -- ★ ★ ½
Although it features bone-cracking violence, "Brawl in Cell Block 99" is not exactly a scuffle.
This pulpy mash-up of two genres -- corrupt-prison and torture-horror -- is more of a death march: a deliberate plod toward retribution. In place of catharsis, the climax provides gross-out slapstick, but writer-director S. Craig Zahler takes his handiwork so seriously that viewers may do the same.
The brawler of the title is phlegmatic Bradley (Vince Vaughn), who becomes a drug courier when he loses his job in an auto-repair shop. With his hulking frame and a large cross tattooed on the back of his shaved head, Bradley is obviously trouble. Yet everything he does is to support -- and, later, to protect -- his family.
Arrested after an abortive drug run, Bradley is sent to jail. A drug lord's emissary (the reptilian Udo Kier) informs him that hideous things will happen to his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) and their unborn daughter if Bradley doesn't get himself sent to the maximum-security cell block 99. What awaits him there is sadistic torment, overseen by a soft-spoken warden (Don Johnson), and a showdown with his ultimate enemy (Dion Mucciacito).
Aside from letting "Brawl" run a half-hour too long, Zahler indulges himself with intentionally lousy-looking cinematography and fake 1970s soul tunes that he co-wrote (and got the O'Jays and Butch Tavares to sing). But there's no fat on the action scenes, which are shot in long takes, without the usual quick cuts. When Bradley finally claims his vengeance, we see the full price he extracts.
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Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier
Directed by: S. Craig Zahler
Other: An RLJE Films release. Unrated. Contains violence, language and nudity. At Schaumburg's Streets of Woodfield. 132 minutes