Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) – A Review


A review of the action prison film Brawl in Cellblock 99, starring Vince Vaughn, Don Johnson and Jennifer Carpenter

Vince-Vaughn-in-Brawl-in-Cell Block-99-action-movie

Vince Vaughn has had a rocky past he’s been trying to shake loose from. He’s tried to go straight, but things just haven’t been worked out living a law-abiding life. So, he takes a shady drug running gig in order to set him and his wife up with a more comfortable life and are excitedly awaiting the arrival of their soon-to-be-born baby.

It all looks promising, until Vaughn is hit with a major detour when his latest job goes sideways. Three million dollars worth of drugs are lost, he’s arrested and now has to do a lengthy stretch in the pen. More bad news come from a drug kingpin who is not happy at the big loss of money that’s happened because of this botched deal. For payback, he kidnaps Vaughn’s wife, threatens the health of the baby still in her tummy and orders Vaughn to kill an inmate in a maximum prison or else!

Now Vaughn has to really toughen up, unleash his past boxing skills, get himself transferred to a dangerous big house and try to find this mystery inmate to kill him and save his wife and baby.

Brawl-in-Cell Block-99-2017-action-movie-Vince-Vaughn-prisonThis isn’t the Vaughn who you know as the fast-talking, wisecracking, charming guy. This is worlds away from that persona. With his shaved head and giant cross tattoo on the back of it he gives off unflinching stares, doesn’t say a lot, has a no-nonsense attitude and gets violently physical as he plows through a lot of people pummeling in a very violent fashion. 

Brawl in Cellblock 99 is an entertaining Saturday night bone-crunching action flick. It really takes its time setting up Vaughn’s character and building up to the predicament as to how he ultimately feels he doesn’t have any alternatives to get a steady life going with his wife and baby, so he folds and goes back to the fruitful drug running he wanted to leave behind. We view him as a decent guy, but with limited alternatives to make a life for a family, no matter how hard he tries.

Early on, we see that when he’s angry he can become possessed and gets caught into a whirlwind of violence and aggression. He catches his wife cheating on him and rather than raising his fists to her, he takes out his anger out on her car, which is somewhat humorous. See, he’s a decent fellow.

Vaughn is also smart. When the offer for this newest drug run is made to him he’s immediately uneasy about the stakes and who he has to partner with on it. Of course, despite his reluctance, he’s brought into it and it all goes south.

At first Vaughn lands into a more posh, friendly prison. He’s resigned himself that he’ll miss the birth of the baby and will just have to spend the next seven years counting down the days until he can be reunited with his wife and daughter. You feel bad for the guy.

Then he gets the threat from that drug kingpin and his motivations change. No longer can he just be another prisoner in the long line of cells, he’s got to show he’s a dangerous and violent convict who has to be moved to more a more strict and prison setting.

Vince-Vaughn-Don-Johnson-Brawl-in-Cell Block-99-2017-action-movieWhen Vaughn is moved to ‘Redleaf’, the maximum security pen he has to find his prey in. There’s some great slow buildup as he’s moved to there and meets warden Don Johnson. He’s nonchalantly sadistic and appears to have done this introduction to his ‘prisoners’ thousands of times before. I wish he had a bigger role in the film.

He welcomes Vaughn into this dark hellhole and is seemingly unconcerned with this new ‘tough guy’ he’s going to break. He leans back as he explains the rules of this place where there’s really no rules.

Vaughn barely flinches at his threats and responds as this will be a minor inconvenience he has to get through to reach his goal. Whatever tortuous scenario is placed in front of him, he shakes it off and keeps moving forward. Redleaf resembles more like an ancient tomb than a prison.

The climax is tense and the film doesn’t cheapen out with a triumphant ending for Vaughn and his story. After all the time establishing he, his wife and the hope the arrival of their new baby represents to their lives, the ending has an emotional hit as the credits roll.

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, who made the disturbing Bone Tomahawk (and boy, was that film a vicious tale), Brawl in Cell Block 99 is at the same level of brutality and violence. There’s savage fights, broken limbs, stabbings and skulls being crushed. If that’s what you’re looking for, the film delivers. It doesn’t have the stylized choreography, as say John Wick. This is gritty and brutal. When guys hit the ground Vaughn just continues to kick their faces in making sure they won’t be getting back up.

All the action is filmed very nicely, without any of that lazy fast cutting that makes things incomprehensible to understand. It’s clear you’re watching Vaughn kicking ass effectively and you get to enjoy every bone he breaks on guards and prisoners. The film certainly earns its R-rating. 

Brawl-in-Cell-Block-99-2017-prison-action-movie-Vince-Vaughn-Sitting down to watch it, I was apprehensive that Vaughn would be believable in this type of part. This seemed a role more sorted for Jason Statham, but I have to give him credit – Vaughn really pulls it off! I forgot all about that string of silly comedies he headlined and thought he did a really good job with this more hardcore action role. If you’re hesitant about buying Vaughn as a rougher, fighting anti-hero, he’ll impress you.


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