A tough-guy’s tough guy, S. Craig Zahler is working on a fairly unique if downbeat angle in American cinema; it’s hard to imagine he cares about test audiences or anything really, other than positioning himself at the modern day answer to Sam Fuller, Peckinpah or perhaps Edward Bunker, and that’s some kind of grit we could probably use right now.
The usually friendly Vince Vaughn puts aside his avuncular Fred Claus schtick to play Bradley Thomas, an uber-tough guy who gets sent to jail when a crystal meth job goes wrong and a cop is killed. Eight years in the slammer might sound bad enough, but a mysterious henchman (Udo Kier, who else?) gives Thomas an even darker goal; his son will be mutilated unless Thomas infiltrates the highest security area of the jail and kills a target on his instructions.
Thomas is transferred to the deadly Redleaf Facility, where beyond super-tough Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson) is the main obstacle to his getting out alive. As you might expect from the director of Bone Tomahawk and Dragged Across Concrete, Thomas’s journey turns out to be a hellish journey through the uncharted depths of the US penal system, and the grim forebodings of the early stages prove to be well founded.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a brutal, uncompromising thriller that’s long and languid at times, but is compelling to watch as it drills down on Thomas’s bloody suicide mission. Vaughn has never been better than he is here, world-weary, but protective of his family, and fully aware that he’s on a one way ticket to hell and back with a cost that’s hard to contemplate in personal terms.