When I heard that S. Craig Zahler writer and director of “Bone Tomahawk“, one of my favourite films of the last few years, had another film in production I was to say the least very excited. My expectations were extremely high. After having finally watched “Brawl Ιn Cell Block 99” I can truthfully say that my excitement and expectation was fully justified. I was not entirely sure that he would make a film as good as “Bone Tomahawk“. He did. It is without a doubt one of the best films of 2017. A brilliantly made and unpredictable character driven film.
Having seen, and loved, “Bone Tomahawk” I knew to expect the unexpected from a S. Craig Zahler film. He certainly delivered that, and more. He is a film-maker that is not afraid to take his time telling the story he wants to tell and fleshing out the characters. This is what sets him apart from many film-makers nowadays.
The title to some may seem to be a bit misleading. My feeling is that it is an homage to the classic prison films like Jules Dassin‘s “Brute Force” and exploitation cinema. Many of these films exploitative titles concealed films of complexity and depth. Just as “Brawl Ιn Cell Block 99” does.
Vince Vaughn brilliantly anchors the entire film. Giving a mesmerising career best performance in the lead role that could so easily have been one dimensional. He subtly conveys all the complexity and depth of the character. Many who only know him from his comedy films will probably be surprised by his performance. Honestly I was not. I have always felt he is a far better actor than many of the films he has appeared in. “Brawl Ιn Cell Block 99” proves that.
Jennifer Carpenter is superb as I expected her to be. I came to admire her as an actress in the TV show “Dexter“. However, I did not realise until much later that years before she was the actress who blew me away with her performance as the title character in “The Exorcism Οf Emily Rose“. As in both of those roles she brings a nuanced depth to her performance. Her scenes with Vince Vaughn are electrifying in their subtlety. Don Johnson has arguably never been better. He is an actor who has always been far more accomplished than he has ever been given credit for throughout his career. He is unrecognisable as the same actor who came to fame in “Miami Vice” in the 1980s. Genre legend Udo Kier is phenomenal in his few scenes and is in one of the scenes that disturbed me the most in the entire film. Having first cast Lilli Simmons in “Bone Tomahawk” and now Geno Segers it seems that maybe S. Craig Zahler is a fan of the TV show “Banshee“. With which “Brawl In Cell Block 99” shares many similarities.
As with “Bone Tomahawk” it is a deliberately slow paced character driven film that has very little action or violence. Although when the violence and action does kick in it is visceral, brutal, and disturbing. I found “Brawl In Cell Block 99” to have much in common with the character driven films of the 1970s. Although it also feels unlike anything I have seen before. Just like “Bone Tomahawk” was a western but unlike any western I have ever seen so “Brawl In Cell Block 99” is unlike any other prison film I have ever seen.
What frustrates me the most is that “Brawl In Cell Block 99” did not get the cinema release it so richly deserved.
So if you are looking for a film that does something completely different within the prison film genre you really could not do better than checking out this one!