The best late-night movie you’ve never seen.
Benji Bakshi’s cinematography is so grimy and I love it! From the medieval aesthetic of Redleaf Prison to the brutal fight sequences, there’s absolutely nothing sexy or stylish about Brawl in Cell Block 99; it’s blunt and it’s nasty all the way through. I admire the cinematography’s conviction in keeping the film grounded while also embracing the pulpiness of its character and setting. Bakshi leaves nothing to the imagination in regards to the action and he shows it all with a mix of mid and wide shots that serve to really make you feel the pain. The cinematography also does the most to highlight Vaughn’s size but instead of using it to establish Vaughn’s power over the prison guards, it’s actually the prison guards who are in the position of power.
One of the best sequences is Bradley’s first encounter with Don Johnson’s Warden Tuggs at Redleaf Prison. After attacking multiple guards, Bradley’s been transferred to Redleaf Prison which is where he has to find and kill a man named Christopher Bridge in order to protect his wife and unborn baby from being mutilated by an abortionist. Once Bradley arrives at Redleaf, Warden Tuggs does everything to assert his power over Bradley, including dumping all his personal belongings on the ground. The wide shots used in the sequence emphasize Bradley’s size over the warden and his prison guards, but from the shackles to Warden Tuggs’ verbal insults, it’s clear that the power dynamics are reversed and Warden Tuggs is the one in control.
Vince Vaughn’s reputation as the fast-talking funny man has now been challenged as Brawl has Vaughn giving an against-type performance that just might be one of the best performances of the last decade! Much like the rest of this movie, it’s not a showy or sexy performance, but through Vaughn’s subtle use of facial expressions and his brief bursts of physical rage, it provides more than enough context on who Bradley Thomas is and what his values are. Despite his massive frame, Bradley won’t resort to violence unless he absolutely has to, but should it get to that point, you better get out of his way unless you want your arms snapped in half. Vince Vaughn’s always been a big guy, but Brawl makes use of his height to great effect especially during the fight sequences. It’s not just a dramatic performance that Vaughn has to deliver, but it’s also a physically demanding performance and Vince Vaughn manages to keep up with the choreography.
When we first meet Bradley, he’s not only just been laid off, but he’s also discovered that his wife has been having an affair for about three months. On the surface, Bradley takes the loss of his job rather well, but as he’s driving home, you can see the fumes rising. It’s only once he discovers the hickey on his wife’s neck that he loses it, but instead of hitting her, he orders her in the house, demolishes her car, and walks into the house to discuss her infidelity. We’re already onboard with Vince Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas, but not enough has been said about Jennifer Carpenter’s performance as Lauren Thomas who’s able to make her character’s actions understandable without straight up endorsing them. The sequence also provides us with a deeper insight into both characters as we learn about Bradley and Lauren’s recent miscarriage and their past with drug use. The resolution at the end of the sequence is absolutely perfect because while they’ve effectively resolved their issues, Bradley’s still needs a moment to process Lauren’s infidelity before he can get physical again. This was easily my favorite sequence not only because of the strength of the performances, but also for how the script effectively sets up the characters’ backstories and their themes.
This is one of the most violent action movies I’ve ever seen and it’s not for those with weak stomachs. I may have cheated in labeling this as an action movie since most of the action doesn’t happen until halfway into the film, but they’re shot and performed so well that they deserve to be highlighted among the greats. The first half of Brawl is pure buildup to flesh out the character of Bradley Thomas, but once the violence starts, it doesn’t let up in showing just how violent our gentle giant can get. Bones are snapped in half, teeth are knocked out, and faces are ripped off, but despite Bradley’s propensity for violence, you understand that he doesn’t really want to do this, but he does what he needs to in order to protect his family. Bradley fights with the grace of a martial artist, the power of a boxer, and the blunt force strength of a barroom brawler.
The final set piece is the ultimate payoff for two-and-a-half hours of buildup and we get to see Bradley defend and attack with a mix of different fighting styles. After being beaten down by the Warden and the inmates responsible for his wife’s kidnapping, Bradley outsmarts the prison guards and pummels his way towards Eleazar and his crew and dispatches each of them in glorious fashion. The most violent kill has to be Jonathan Lee’s character who gets his face dragged across concrete. Once Bradley gets his hands on Eleazar, he physically coerces Eleazar to release his pregnant wife. In the end, Bradley knows what his final act of violence will lead to, but he can finally go out knowing that his wife and child are safe. Sometimes, a man’s gotta get his hands dirty.
KICK-ASS OR ASS-KICKED?
No doubt about it, Brawl in Cell Block 99 kicks so much ass! The slow burn feel might turn off some viewers who were hoping for a straightforward action flick, but with an award-worthy performance from Vince Vaughn and a colorful batch of characters, Brawl never feels its runtime. Every minute of this film works to flesh out Bradley’s character and motivation so that once the action does happen, the stakes feel real. For some, the violence might be too gratuitous, but Brawl’s violence isn’t gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous. It’s what has to be done for Bradley to keep his family safe and while the action is choreographed really well, the cinematography captures how unpleasant the violence actually is. First time viewers might need to process it over a period of time, but much like Bradley’s rough exterior, there’s a lot more bubbling beneath the surface.