‘Brawl In Cell Block 99’ Is A Brutal, Slow-Burning Revenge Saga
Question all your notions of what kind of actor Vince Vaughn is. We all might think we know him, because of his repetitious roles in repetitious rom-coms. But the dry and fast-talking buddy character that has defined him is out the window in Brawl in Cell Block 99, which should credit Vaughn as both its star and its savior. He's had a few serious roles in the past (including a lead in the disappointing second season of HBO's True Detective), but here, the actor has proven that he's most entertaining when he reaches deep and goes dark.
In this prison-exploitation flick, Vaughn plays Bradley, an ex-boxer-turned-drug-runner who (inevitably) gets himself into serious trouble, both with the law and with his affiliates.
A greater part of the movie's two-hour runtime is this continuous, downward spiral of Bradley's life, until he's forced to duke it out with his bare fists to preserve the only things he has left. These brutal and well-choreographed fight scenes make for great popcorn violence (even as they seem to be partially censored here in the Philippine screenings), and could certainly inspire a cult status for the film, in the vein of Quentin Tarantino's earlier works.
But it does take a long, long while to get there. Brawl might not work for more impatient viewers, as it burns very slowly through its first hour: lots of circuitous talking, an unexciting shoot-out, and not a lot happening at all. It doesn't help that the movie is almost totally devoid of music, and doused in a cold and dreary blue—purposeful aesthetic choices, no doubt, but ones that makes this first half feel even slower and more inhospitable. Mediocre dialogue and campy sarcasm don't do quite enough to carry you through its plodding pace, too, but it only barely gets by thanks to Vaughn's command of his character, which gradually builds intensity.
Brawl eventually hits its stride in the last 30 minutes, though, at which point it becomes a thoroughly satisfying beat-'em-up with high stakes and a lot of pent-up frustrations in every punch and stomp. Then it all culminates in the film's final act, which is gripping enough to justify the time that the movie took to get there. But again, it's only so good because Vaughn absolutely sells it (not something you could really say for him in a lot of his other roles). We can't imagine that Brawl would be able to atone for its missteps if not for how well he portrayed the character's anger and desperation as he sunk further into hell.
Altogether, Brawl in Cell Block 99 works because it was able to pour the weight of its initial drag into its final spectacles of violence. It's probably not a movie you could watch a second time, precisely because of that drag, but at the very least, it was enjoyable right before it ended. And if nothing else, Brawl could start Vince Vaughn down a path to more movies that can tap into this side of him, hopefully ridding us of the rom-com staple we once knew.