Review: Vince Vaughn is revelatory in 'Brawl in Cell Block 99'

Posted December 27,2017 - 12:24 PM

Last night, I was flipping through the channels looking for something to catch my attention in the abyss of post-Christmas TV fodder and I landed on Smokey and the Bandit. I hadn't seen that film in decades and I was curious to see if it still held up. The short answer is that it really does despite several anachronisms that make us long for a simpler time.

Surprisingly, my six-year-old daughter was enthralled by the film and would have finished it with me had sleep not overcome her about halfway through. Watching that film filled me with a bit of nostalgia for the odd collection of films that came out of the 1970s. My Dad loves these films and I only wish that my parents would have stayed in town a day longer so that we could have shared Smokey and the Bandit again one more time.

That's a bit of a circuitous route to the lead in for my review of Brawl in Cell Block 99, but I promise there's a connection. After watching Brawl in Cell Block 99, I was immediately taken back to those prison exploitation films of the 1970s. Of course, most of those films centered on incarcerated women such as Caged Heat, Big Doll House and the like but the concept is the same. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a gritty grindhouse film that would seamlessly fit in with these films during a film marathon.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 tells the story of a former boxer who is laid off and faces marital troubles on the horizon. With his back against the wall, he takes a job delivering drugs for a friend until he eventually ends up behind bars. His violent past catches up with him and he's put in the impossible position of being hired muscle for the very man responsible for putting him in prison.

This was a film that completely floored me. I don't use that term lightly as that there are very few films that have the ability to surprise and titillate me. Usually, films with a unique hook or with gripping storytelling are spoiled by the time I am able to review them. It's a professional hazard, but one that I'm more than willing to accept for the rare times when a movie like Brawl in Cell Block 99 comes along.

I'll be honest, I went into the review of this film without much in the way of background on the movie. I knew that it starred Vince Vaughn, but beyond that, I figured that the title was as much of a spoiler for the film as anything out there. I could not have been more wrong and I'm glad that I was.

First, the film takes its time to get to the climactic Brawl, which is so out of character for movies today that seemingly suffer from the same lack of attention span as many in its audience. This film reminded me alot of Manchester by the Sea in its desire to let the story unfold at its own pace and not worry about the time it invests in character development. Many of their contemporaries could learn something from these two movies. The slow burn in Brawl in Cell Block 99 actually works in its favor when the action gets ratcheted up to 11 in the third act. By that point, the anticipation of the brutality works with the action on the screen to underscore the violence found in prisons.

Next, while I don't see much in the way of awards buzz for Vince Vaughn for this film, he delivers what might be his best performance to date and it's simply amazing. I figured that the film would feature as many laughs as punches which would allow Vaughn to showcase his natural humor by which he is known. But, there are few chuckles in this film and the dark tone actually punctuates his dramatic performance perfectly.

I never thought I would ever use the words Oscar and Vince Vaughn in the same sentence, but if this film is an indication of a newfound path of acting roles for him, then I would not be surprised to see a statuette in his future. Yeah, he was that good in Brawl in Cell Block 99.

The true travesty in Brawl in Cell Block 99 is that very few people have seen it. Fortunately, that is something that will be fixed now that it is available widely on home entertainment. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is now available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD.