Vince Vaughn is so intimidating in “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” even the back of his head seems to be glaring at us and asking, “Do we have a problem here?”
No really. It’s such a scary noggin that they’re using the view from behind for the poster. Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, Vaughn sports a shaved and bumpy cranium festooned with a giant tattoo of a black cross and multiple patches of mud and soot and blood.
It’s a suitably nasty image for a creatively violent and gruesomely entertaining grindhouse movie that has the look and feel of a particularly well-made late-night drive-in flick from the 1970s.
And in the middle of all the wince-inducing, limb-bending, bone-crunching, face-exploding bloodshed, Vaughn turns in a legitimately great performance that ranks among the finest work he’s ever done. Vaughn fully commits to playing a hulking killing machine who tried his best to quell his demons and make a go of it in the straight (as in non-criminal) world, but finds himself behind bars and on a desperate quest to carry out a hit in order to save his family.
Written and directed with a brutally arresting style by S. Craig Zahler, “Brawl in Cell Block 99” kicks off with Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas (always “Bradley,” never “Brad”) a recovering alcoholic with a dark past, getting laid off from his job as a tow truck driver with an auto repair shop.
And his day is about to get much worse.
Bradley arrives home just in time to confront his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), who is sitting in her car in their driveway and is thinking about leaving him for good. When Lauren confesses an affair, Bradley quietly but forcefully tells her to go into the house — and then he proceeds to beat up her car. He smashes the headlights and mirrors, he rips out the windshield wipers and he detaches the hood and hurls it into the street like an oversized Frisbee.
Hmmm, a bit of foreshadowing there indicating ya don’t want to trifle with big Brad. I mean Bradley, sorry!
Desperate to save his marriage and make some serious scratch, Bradley falls back into a life of crime, and after a job goes horribly wrong, he finds himself in the medium-security wing of a prison.
Thing is, Bradley actually needs to get thrown in the MAXIMUM security section, so he can track down and kill a certain bad hombre. See, another really bad hombre has kidnapped Bradley’s pregnant wife, and is threatening to do unspeakable things to the wife and the unborn child if Bradley doesn’t carry out the hit.
Thus begins a series of increasingly violent episodes, with Bradley picking fights with a gang of Mexican prisoners and beating up prison guards — and that’s just to get tossed in the max security wing. There we meet the sadistic Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson, hamming it up and looking like he could use a stepladder if he wants to go face to face with Vaughn), who dresses and talks like a corrupt sheriff in an old Western.
Director Zahler, cinematographer Benji Bakshi and fight coordinator Drew Leary stage the fight sequences with precision and a refreshingly welcome number of medium and long shots devoid of the rapid-fire quick cuts and obvious use of stunt doubles prevalent in the vast majority of modern action films. Vaughn’s Bradley is a former boxer, but he also employs a methodical, martial-arts style, patiently waiting for an opponent to expose himself before moving in to snap an extremity or cave in a skull.
The soundtrack to “Brawl in Cell Block 99” sounds like something from a Tarantino period piece — but we’re actually hearing a number of original and crackling good works from Butch Tavares and the O’Jays, which further enhance the grindhouse vibe.
I’m not sure there’s a sequel to be mined from this material, but I’d love to find out more about Bradley’s story in the years before the events of this film.
Maybe we can even see the moment when Bradley decided to get that mega-tattoo on his skull.
RLJE Films presents a film written and directed by S. Craig Zahler. No MPAA rating. Running time: 132 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC Streets of Woodfield and on demand.