Brawl in Cell Block 99 is The Most Gut-Wrenching & Ferocious Film of The Year (Review)

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From writer/director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) comes the gritty action drama Brawl in Cell Block 99. Starring Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Tom Guiry, Geno Segers, Marc Blucas, Rob Morgan and Mustafa Shakir, the film is now available to watch On Demand and in limited theaters everywhere. 

brawl in cell block 99 poster

A former boxer loses his job as an auto mechanic, and his troubled marriage is about to expire. At this crossroads in his life, he feels that he has no better option than to work as a drug courier. He soon finds himself in a gunfight between police officers and his own ruthless allies. When the smoke clears, Bradley is badly hurt and thrown in prison, where his enemies force him to commit acts of violence that turn the place into a savage battleground.


Bone Tomahawk has one of the most grotesque scenes that I’ve ever witnessed in a movie. Director S. Craig Zahler has decided to up the ante with Brawl in Cell Block 99 by loading it with even more shocking and horrifying acts of violence, creating one of the most gory and gut-wrenching films of 2017 — possibly ever. And that’s not to call Brawl in Cell Block 99 a horror film, because this movie for the most part plays out like an intense drama with some of the most remarkable and genuine acting performances of the year. Vince Vaughn delivers his best work to date as a down-on-his-luck guy who starts to turn his life around by becoming a drug courier (ok maybe not the best career choice), only for that decision to backfire dramatically on him while he finds himself in prison and forced with a life or death decision to save his wife and child on the outside. The message that Udo Kier delivers to Vaughn about hiring an abortionist that says he can sever infant limbs while still in the womb is one of the haunting pieces of dialog you’ll ever listen to at the movies.

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It’s that driving moment, where Vaughn’s character is forced to turn what seems like a very positive and friendly demeanour at first, into a boiling cauldron of unstoppable rage in order to carry out an assassination behind bars. In order to do this, he needs to level up, so to speak, by committing horrific assaults on both guards and fellow prisoners so that he can get to his main target in time to save his wife and unborn baby. The depths that he reaches not only while inside prison, but himself (I’m getting deep here) are truly frightening. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a movie about what a good man is capable of when he has no other choice but to exert violence on other human beings in order to save his family. It is truly the most dark and disturbing movie I’ve seen in 2017 and even though it can be a slow burn at times (Bone Tomahawk was very much the same in tone), the bursts of action are so incredibly shot and staged that the movie winds up making mainstream action films like John Wick 2 seem extremely tame in comparison.

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The practical effects are ferocious. You will see faces blown off, scraped to the skull and bones pop out of skin in several instances. Every single punch and impact of harm looks so realistic that you will cringe each and every time it happens. I don’t think I’ve yelled “Ohhhhh my god!” more times during any other movie this year – S. Craig Zahler and his effects team/action choreographers managed to turn action into horror with their ability to take fight scenes and transform them into set pieces of legit dread. The damn movie ends on an effect that would look at home with late 70’s splatter horror — S.  Craig Zahler isn’t fucking around and I love his dedication to making this film the way he did.

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Just following Vaughn’s character from scene to scene is intimidating because of that cross tattoo on the back of his head. If you thought the Hitman and his bald bar-code tat was badass, then get the hell out and bow down to your new bald overlord of Cell Block 99. The soundtrack (featuring several cuts from Butch Tavares and The O’Jays) makes the film feel like a grindhouse flick too, which felt jarring at first, but entirely appropriate since you’ll usually only hear songs during the driving scenes. The supporting cast were all fantastic as well, including Jennifer Carpenter as the wife and Don Johnson’s brief but intimidating screentime as Warden Tuggs. If you came into this expecting a prison movie – that’s not really what this is… Yes, a large portion of the film takes place in prison, but we aren’t watching Shawshank Redemption here, this is something else entirely… I’m blown away by the ferocity and purity of the violence in Zahler’s second feature length film. He’s easily established himself as one of the best filmmakers today and I can’t wait to see what other genre he wants to turn upside down in the future.

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